No farm bill bad news for Fla. farmers
JOHN BUCHANANWorsening gridlock in Washington and election year politics have combined to dash hopes that a new farm bill could be passed by Congress before the current legislation expired Sept. 30. And without an emergency extension or new bill during the lame duck session in November, Florida farmers will face some important negative consequences.
Published: October 3, 2012
Published: October 3, 2012
"It's extremely frustrating," said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and co-chair of the national Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance created to help push through a new farm bill. "We've been working on a rewrite of the farm bill for the better part of the last year and we had what I believe was a very good package that came out of the Senate. What came out of the House Agriculture Committee also was very good for Florida and very good for the industry. So it's frustrating that things didn't come together to get a consolidated bill through both houses of Congress."
Stuart and SCFBA have focused on issues specifically related to specialty crop growers, such as the specialty crop research and risk mitigation initiatives, block grant program for pest disease, funding for fruit and vegetable snack programs, and the Clean Plant Network, a voluntary association of specialty crop networks that have joined to promote the use of pathogen-tested, healthy plant material for food crops in the United States.
"Those programs are relatively new," Stuart said. "They came out of the 2008 farm bill, so this would have been the first renewal of them. Without a new bill, there will be no funding available for any of those important specialty crop programs."
Furthermore, said Judy Sanchez, senior director of corporate communications and public affairs at Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar Corporation, one of the nation's largest producers, expiration of the current farm bill creates uncertainty in the marketplace.
"While the upcoming sugarcane crop is covered under the current Farm Bill, farmers in Florida and across the nation need the certainty and commitment of a five-year farm bill in order to make critical crop, planting and financing decisions," Sanchez said. "Many valuable agricultural support programs, including vital research for citrus diseases, are at risk until Congress passes new legislation."
A key issue, Sanchez said, is the fact that while U.S. sugar growers are among the most efficient and low-cost producers in the world, "we cannot compete with the treasuries of the many foreign countries who subsidize their own sugar production. Continuation of the current 'no-cost sugar policy' is included in both the Senate and House Agriculture Committee farm bills that were passed in a strong bipartisan manner this summer. We hope that when Congress convenes after the election, our elected representatives will make vitally needed farm legislation a priority."
Although Florida's dairy producers are also concerned about the current bill's expiration, its negative impact is not as immediate as it is on specialty crops, said Ray Hodge, director of government affairs at Belleview-based Southeast Milk, a farmer-owned cooperative that represents the vast majority of Florida's milk production.
"For dairy producers, a couple of the key programs in the current farm bill do not expire until the end of the year," Hodge said. "So, short-term, those key programs, such as dairy price support, really are not directly impacted. However, if they do not act in the lame duck session after the election, then there will definitely be negative impact."
Among Stuart's key concerns is the troubling reality that if a new farm bill is not passed in November during the lame duck session of Congress, "we're back to square one beginning early next year in a very, very difficult budgetary environment" that will almost inevitably result from the deep budget cuts required to avoid the so-called "fiscal cliff" created by sharply rising budget deficits and an exploding national debt.
"So there will be an even tougher environment than we had this year to get the kind of farm bill done than we've been hoping for," Start said. "That will make things much more challenging."
Given such impending difficulties, Stuart said, he and SCFBA are cautiously hopeful that Congress will pass a new bill before the end of the year. "And we'll be working with the leadership and members of the Florida delegation to try to get that done," he said, adding that Florida farmers and other agribusinesses should make their feelings known to their representatives when Congress returns after the November elections.
"We don't want an extension," he said. "We've got to have this bill completely redone and reauthorized in November. An extension, to us, is half a loaf. We need a new bill and we need it now. That's what all the hard work has been about."