AFTER years of debate and questionable outcomes, the Senate approved the farm bill conference report last Tuesday that the House had passed the week prior.
The President signed the bill into law at an event at Michigan State University Feb. 7, ending a multiyear process of passing the latest installment of U.S. farm policy.
Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said on the Senate floor ahead of the cloture vote, "This is not your father's farm bill."
She explained that major reforms are included, such as ending direct payments and making one of the largest investments in land and water conservation in years.
A vast majority of the bill's $956.4 billion cost — about 75% — is for nutrition programs, while 15% goes to commodities and the rest is divvied up among conservation programs, university research and risk management for specialty crops.
Carl Zulauf, agricultural economist at The Ohio State University, said it's important for producers to be aware that the more than 900-page bill now goes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to begin the process of writing rules for implementing the approved farm bill.
"Legislation is only one part of the process," Zulauf said. "Regulations can change the interpretation and, more importantly, come out in ways other than one would expect and Congress intended."
Roman Keeney, who specializes in agricultural policy at Purdue University, added that as USDA digests the new bill and works through rule writing, it's important for those affected by the bill to keep a close eye on how its various components develop.
"We just want to encourage people who have been watching the farm bill this long to know that the process is ongoing," he said. "There will be ways for them to participate, and they will have to start engaging. If you're impacted by the farm bill, you need to follow it and try to understand what your options are and how your decisions will be affected."
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said over the last several months, USDA has been convening groups and prioritizing programs that should be rolled out first once Congress passed the farm bill. Programs with more detailed changes and reform will take more time, he explained.
Vilsack said USDA will concentrate on rolling out disaster assistance as "quickly as we possibly can," which should be fairly simple since it is more of a procedural process thanks to similarities between the new livestock disaster assistance and what's in the 2008 farm bill. The 2008 provisions expired in 2011, but the latest bill does provide retroactive assistance to producers.
Members of Congress called on Vilsack to expedite implementation of livestock disaster programs.
Sens. John Thune (R., S.D.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) and 22 of their colleagues sent Vilsack a letter noting that after the 2008 farm bill, it took more than a year for signups to occur under the Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) and Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP). They said since the new LIP and LFP are similar to the versions in the 2008 farm bill, they expect USDA to implement the programs within a "much shorter time frame."
The 2014 LIP is the only economic assistance available to most livestock producers devastated by winter storm Atlas, which killed more than 20,000 cattle, sheep, horses and bison in the Dakotas and Nebraska. Without LIP, many will be unable to adequately rebuild their herds and sustain their ranching operations, the senators wrote.
Because LFP uses the U.S. Drought Monitor to determine county eligibility and whether payments will be made for one, two or the maximum of three months, this eligibility information should already be determined by USDA for 2012 and 2013 losses, the senators added.
They asked Vilsack for an update by Feb. 14 on the status of LIP and LFP implementation, including the time frame for policy and software development, rule-making, signup and issuance of payments.
"Our livestock producers and their lenders need this information so they can plan accordingly," they wrote.