America’s farmers and ranchers can certainly relate to a former president’s quip that “about the time we can make ends meet, somebody moves the ends.”
Producers from across the country breathed a collective sigh of relief after a four-year-long debate over a five-year Farm Bill finally came to a successful conclusion on February 7 and they turned their sights to planting season.
Mother Nature soon reminded producers why the Farm Bill is so important. On the East Coast, a March freeze devastated much of the South Carolina and Georgia peach crop. Meanwhile, in the southern High Plains a D-4 drought, the most severe, continued its stranglehold while stretching its reach still farther west to California, leading to epic firestorms that threatened the state’s second-largest city. And up north, farmers in states like Minnesota were delayed by a month in getting into water-drenched fields in order to plant.
But farmers and ranchers, at least the seasoned ones and even the less-seasoned soon enough, have come to expect these sorts of disasters that keep producers up all night and down all day.
What they less expect are some of the devastations that Washington lets loose from time to time.
Take, for instance, new EPA regulations that seek to chip away at Supreme Court rulings that limited the reach of the Clean Water Act to navigable waters and that appear to resurrect carbon emission reduction goals of cap and trade legislation that failed to gain congressional approval.
Each threatens to increase costs and regulations on producers who may well wake up one day to much steeper energy bills while finding a ditch on the farm all of a sudden under federal regulation. According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association that services about 80 percent of the U.S. landmass, “America’s electric cooperatives are naturally concerned that these regulations will increase electricity prices and force power plant shutdowns, thereby harming the economy and jobs of hard-working Americans.” This is especially hard on an energy-intensive enterprise like agriculture.
Consider, as well, the actions of Vermont and a couple of counties in Oregon that endeavor to hinder or outright stop what Dr. Norman Borlaug started some 40 years ago and that is credited with savings billions of lives around the world, namely the development and use of drought and pest resistance seed. Producers faced an even more formidable problem when Californians entertained such a proposition on their ballot and more recently in the state legislature where passage would have sent shockwaves across the country and the world. Fortunately, these efforts failed, albeit narrowly, each time.
On tax and trade measures, too, everything seems up in the air. Small business expensing went from $500,000 last year down to $25,000 this year, prompting many organizations representing farms, ranches, and small businesses to write in a letter to Congress stating, “The roller-coaster, ad-hoc changes in the level of small business expensing, which have often been enacted retroactively in recent years, has greatly contributed to uncertainty and prevented long-term planning.”
Even trade is topsy-turvy these days with agreement after agreement stalling as trading partners in some instances try to turn reciprocal trade flows into one-way streets.
With this as a backdrop, it is no wonder that farmers and ranchers greet the upcoming annual agriculture appropriations process with such trepidation. For their part, the Agriculture Appropriations subcommittees and the full Appropriations committees have done exemplary work not only in assembling good legislation with extremely limited resources but have done so in a way that does not break faith with the five-year pledge made to producers under the just enacted Farm Bill. One amendment to reopen the Farm Bill debate was offered in the full House Appropriations Committee markup but was soundly defeated on a bipartisan vote.
But the House and Senate floor consideration presents yet new opportunities for some to try and rehash old debates, debates that stretched over four years, 40 hearings, a super committee process, four committee markups, one extension, nine floor debates, and a four-month-long conference committee.
But even an opponent of agriculture who has offered a poison pill amendment to each Farm Bill since 2002 questions the judgment of opening the Farm Bill only four months after its enactment into law.
“Right now, USDA has got their hands full with implementation … Farmers are just wrapping their hands around the new programs, so I don’t suspect there would be much political stomach on the floor or back home to reopen the whole Farm Bill up for another serious discussion,” the agriculture opponent said recently.
Farmers and ranchers really could really use a break, not only to deal with what Mother Nature, Washington, and state and local governments are throwing at them on the regulatory front, but also to get their arms around a new Farm Bill, which they do need to come to learn and understand as the new law of the land. Oh, and, yes, to in the meantime put food on our tables, clothes on our backs, fuel in our tanks, and make ends meet.
The House and Senate would do well by rural America to follow the lead of the Appropriations committees and leave the Farm Bill alone.