By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
The 2012 farm bill has turned into something for 2013, or maybe 2014.
Adam Nielsen, Illinois Farm Bureau's national legislative director, said it's going to be a while before farmers see a new farm bill.
"While we're pushing to try to get something done as early as possible, we recognize right now there's some very significant issues the country needs to address on spending, the debt ceiling and deficit reduction," Nielsen said. "It's possible the farm bill could be considered as part of that package -- I've said that a couple of other times and it didn't happen -- but I don't know where we'll find the magic that's going to get it done this year or next."
It's been a frustrating time for Nielsen and others pushing for the new legislation stalled for the past 18 months.
The Senate acted on the farm bill, but the House did not, and now a new Congress and other issues stand to slow the process even more.
Despite some lingering policy differences, "it sounded like they were very close to finding the sweet spot on the nutrition side and just need to work a little bit more at the commodity side to arrive at a program everybody can work with," Nielsen said. "Now we have a sense it may again be something that takes several more months."
In the meantime, farm programs continue unchanged thanks to an extension of the last farm bill passed in December.
The extension "kind of came out of nowhere," spurred by fears that without action on the federal milk program, set to expire with the farm bill, consumers would see dramatically higher milk prices in the grocery store, Nielsen said, but it fell short in many ways of what farmers needed and wanted from the farm legislation.
"It authorizes a lot of programs that aren't going to get any money and really misses the chance again to fine-tune farm programs for today and for the benefit of taxpayers," Nielsen said. "Our members were not clamoring for direct payments. They were not in our policy, but this extended them out for another year. It missed the chance to improve crop insurance, to create a revenue program to help farmers with year-to-year revenue losses. We'll keep talking about those ideas in the context of a new five-year bill."
Nielsen also will keep talking about the importance of a farm bill in a country where most people take food for granted.
Four out of five dollars of farm programs go into the federal nutrition program -- not to what many consider traditional farm programs.
"What the farm program has done over the years is it has supported production, it has allowed farmers to get from a bad year into the next year without a major disruption, it has supported conservation policy aims for clean water, clean air and open space and it has also supported the basic nutritional needs of Americans never more than it does today with 47.5 million American men, women and children the recipients of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits," he said.
Delays in approving the bill could mean further cuts to all ag-related programs.
"The bottom line was by pushing the farm bill debate into another year the policymakers were guaranteeing we were going to have to cut more," Nielsen said. "In Illinois, we have to look at what programs are most important to us. Our members decided two years ago, and feel more strongly today, crop insurance is the program we need to rally around. We saw its value. It works well."
Illinois legislators understand the policy benefits of having a farm bill, but "as farmers bump into members of Congress and have an opportunity to work with new members, it doesn't hurt to explain to them why the farm bill is important," Nielsen said.
Nielsen and a group of 25 Illinois farmers plan to continue that conversation with a March trip to the nation's capitol to highlight ag issues including the need for a new farm bill.
Without it, agriculture could "limp" from one extension to the next, but "agriculture in 2013 is different than it was in 2007 and 2008," Nielsen said. "We are going to do everything in our power to try to make the case that 2013 is the year for a five-year farm bill. We're to act as if Congress is not dysfunctional, is capable of making decisions."