WHILE thoughts of any farm bill fix looked dim after Christmas, pressure on the White House to prevent a "dairy cliff" ahead of the new year may have been the catalyst to work a short-term extension of the farm bill into the final fiscal cliff bill.
Agricultural groups welcomed the certainty the bill provides for making spring planting decisions and for the operation of critical foreign market development programs. However, they were less appreciative of the lack of a five-year farm bill, how the deal was brokered and the fight that now lies ahead in trying to get money appropriated.
When it appeared that the final fiscal cliff deal would address the farm bill, Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) and House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) worked together to form a thoughtful, 78-page farm bill extension that covered smaller programs, farm and food system reform, $850 million in disaster aid and the dairy policy change that was in both the Senate and House Agriculture Committee versions of the farm bill in 2012.
Instead, however, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and Vice President Joe Biden decided to move ahead on a more straightforward extension.
The Congressional Budget Office scored the farm bill extension at zero cost, but the only way to do that was to eliminate mandatory funding from the 2008 farm bill and require appropriators to come up with it -- a difficult task in today's budget environment.
Stabenow voted in favor of the bill but went on record as calling it "McConnell's farm bill" and saying she was not happy with how agriculture's needs were handled.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) said while an extension through the end of September 2013 is not the best outcome, he believes it is the "best possible bill at this time."
Dale Moore, American Farm Bureau Federation deputy director of public policy, noted that he wasn't entirely surprised that the end result was an extension because it avoided cherry-picking which programs would change and, in essence, creating a firestorm for helping one commodity over another.
All commodity programs -- including dairy, but excluding the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program -- continue at the same funding levels they were at on Sept. 30, 2012.
The MILC Program continues through Aug. 31, 2013, at the same payment rate and feed cost adjuster it was at on Aug. 31, 2012, at a cost of $110 million.
Conservation programs under this extension also continue at levels consistent with previous allocations, although there will be no new signups for the Conservation Security Program.
During the 2008 farm bill debate, the authors of the bill chose to eliminate mandatory funding of more than 35 programs when that bill expired. The current extension continues those programs but puts the onus on appropriators to fund it.
The energy title was not extended.
The 2008 farm bill authorized disaster programs for livestock, commodity and specialty crop producers but terminated those programs at the end of 2011. This extension reinstates those programs (except the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments program) for 2012 and 2013 and keeps them in line with the rest of the farm bill. As with other expired programs, the extension authorizes appropriations for these programs.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. noted that the bill authorizes limited disaster assistance for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, offering $80 million for livestock indemnity payments, $400 million for the livestock forage disaster program and $50 million for emergency assistance. Again, funding for these programs is subject to receiving the money from appropriations committees.
The bill also continues direct payments at a price tag of $5 billion for the year, despite the consensus that direct payments should be eliminated to pay for new and expanded programs.
In the end, Moore said, the bill provides a certain amount of relief and gives farmers some idea of what to focus on in 2013.
"The hope is, as soon as (legislators) can, and certainly before the remaining nine months, to get a farm bill done that picks up where they left off at the end of 2012," he said.
American Soybean Assn. president Danny Murphy said while the extension is certainly preferable to no bill at all, it is only a stopgap measure and does not provide the long-term certainty and stability farmers need.
"Once the extension expires at the end of the fiscal year in September, we will be left at the same impasse we've had since the House Agriculture Committee passed its farm bill in July, unless our elected leaders can find a way to come back to the bargaining table with a renewed focus on what's important ... for all of agriculture and for the nation as a whole," Murphy said. "It's imperative that our members of Congress ... move past party politics and get the job done this time."