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Karl Sorg combines corn at his family's farm at sunrise just outside Hastings, Minn., on Sept. 21.

Extension vote on farm bill by Congress bad step for ag?

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GRAND FORKS -- Farm group leaders are upset that Congress extended the current U.S. farm bill instead of passing a new one.

They say the extension gives Congress more time to cut spending on programs that provide a safety net for farmers and a secure, affordable food supply for consumers.

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"Bad for family farmers and ranchers. Bad for the country," said Woody Barth, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, of the extension.

Congress on Jan. 1 extended parts of the current U.S. farm bill for nine months. That makes Sept. 30 the new deadline for legislative action on a five-year farm bill, the federal government's main food and agricultural policy tool.

The old five-year farm bill expired Sept. 30, 2012, though most programs covered by it weren't affected until Jan. 1.

The Senate passed a new farm bill last summer, as did the House Agriculture Committee, but the full House never had a chance to vote on the proposed legislation. Farm groups had worked for months to develop, fine-tune and win support for the proposal.

"To have worked so long and to have the finish line in sight, and then not get it (a new farm bill) done, is very disappointing," said Erik Younggren, a Hallock, Minn., farmer and president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. "This extension isn't what we wanted."

The proposed farm bill ended direct payments to farmers and would have saved taxpayers billions of dollars over five years.

Details of the extension weren't understood fully Wednesday. But it appears direct payments will continue, while some programs, including ones designed to promote energy, conservation and beginning farmers, will lose funding.

Pressure to maintain direct payments came from rice and cotton growers, said Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union.

Retaining direct payments isn't good for agriculture or its public image, he said.

Some owners of farmland and farmers who rent land had assumed that direct payments would disappear. Keeping direct payments in play for another nine months could complicate farmland leases, said Paul Casper, a Lake Preston, S.D., farmer and president of the South Dakota Soybean Association.

Changes in conservation funding also complicate decisions about whether land should be kept in conservation programs, he said.

Ag leaders fear that federal budget pressures will cause Congress to make much steeper ag cuts, including ones to crop insurance and other programs that farmers value highly.

"We'd already taken our fair share of cuts," Barth said.

Federal crop insurance, which enjoys strong, widespread support among farm groups, is particularly important to most farmers. The federal government subsidizes the insurance, which makes it more affordable to ag producers.

"We're worried about (possible) cuts to crop insurance. We're going to try to protect it," said Keith Alverson, a Chester, S.D., farmer and a member of the National Corn Growers Association's board of directors.

Potential cuts in ag research and trade promotion also concern farm groups and their leaders.

Farmers and others in agribusiness need a long-term framework in which to operate, which an extension doesn't provide, said Doyle Johannes, an Underwood farmer and president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau.

"It's very disappointing to get an extension when we needed a new farm bill," he said.

Historically, farm state politicians have had enough influence to win passage of five-year farm bills that are good for agriculture, Casper said.

He wonders if the extension indicates that farm states and their elected officials have less clout in Congress today.

Many Americans, including some in the news media, mistakenly believe that all money spent under the farm bill goes to farmers, said Bob Hanson, a White Sulphur Springs, Mont., farmer and president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.

In reality, food stamps and other nutrition programs account for the vast majority of farm bill spending, he said.

He and other farm group leaders say many Americans also don't understand the importance of maintaining the nation's food production system.

Congress, for its part, seems to have forgotten that much of America is locked in drought and that many American farmers face serious challenges in 2013, Peterson said.

Now, U.S. farmers, ranchers and ag groups need to overcome their disappointment and work with Congress to approve a new farm bill that's good for agriculture, said Kurt Krueger, a Rothsay, Minn., farmer and treasurer of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association.

"This (the extension) is what I expected," he says. "Now we're back to square one in coming up with a new farm bill."

Farm group leaders don't know when work on a new farm bill might begin.

U.S. Rep Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said in an interview with Forum News Service that he's willing to work with the GOP on a new farm bill.

But Peterson, the Ag Committee's ranking Democrat, said he would do so only if he's promised that the Ag Committee will have the freedom to draw up a new farm bill and that it be allowed to go on to full House for a vote.

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