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Farm bill fumble?: ND farm group leaders say Congress dropped the ball

FARGO -- Frustration. Disappointment. Uncertainty.

Those are the words that area farmers and farm group leaders are using to describe their reaction to the failed effort to pass a new farm bill before the Sept. 30 deadline. Some producers are particularly concerned about the future of federally subsidized crop insurance.

Experts say most farm and nutrition programs covered by the farm bill won't be affected until Jan. 1. But many are concerned that deep cuts ultimately could be made to some farm bill programs.

The farm bill, the centerpiece of U.S. food and agricultural policy, is set to expire Sept. 30. Congress has been working for months to approve a new one, but partisan differences seem to have scuttled the effort.

Thursday, Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, confirmed the farm bill would not be dealt with until after the election.

Failing to pass a farm bill by Sept. 30 was "a missed opportunity," said Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. "There's a lot of disappointment in the countryside." To farmers and others in agribusiness, the farm bill "provides a reasonable safety net."

He notes that Congress didn't pass a farm bill even though more than 90 farm organizations, including the National Farmers Union and American Farm Bureau Federation, rallied in support of new legislation in mid-September in Washington.

Failing to pass a new farm bill "is just not good for agriculture or businesses that are part of agriculture," said Doyle Johannes, an Underwood farmer and president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau. "It leaves us not knowing where we're at. It's disappointing."

In theory, a new farm bill could be passed during the upcoming Congressional lame-duck session, which will be held after the fall election and before the new Congress convenes next year. But area farm group leaders who talked with Agweek don't think that's going to happen.

"We think it (work on the next farm bill) will be kicked into the new Congress next year," said Woody Barth, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. If so, work would begin from scratch on a new farm bill "in a whole different atmosphere" that potentially could be less friendly to agriculture.

Jerry Hagstrom, a prominent agricultural journalist and Washington, D.C., correspondent for Agweek, also said he doubts a new farm bill will be passed during the lame-duck session.

But some speculate that Congress might pass a three- to 12-month extension of the farm bill during the lame-duck session. Boehner said in his statement that it was not decided whether Congress would tackle an extension or a new bill.

That possibility doesn't appeal to Erik Youngren, a Hallock, Minn., farmer and president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

"We need a new five-year farm bill, not an extension," he said.

Scott VanderWal, a Volga, S.D., farmer and president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau, said he was disappointed that Congress didn't approve a farm bill.

Getting the farm bill out of the way would have allowed Congress to tackle bigger issues, such as the growing federal deficit, he said.

Planning, programs

Not having a new farm bill will complicate farmers' planning, said Bob Craven, director of the University of Minnesota Extension's Center for Farm Financial Management.

Typically, his organization hosts sessions to update farmers on farm bill changes after a new farm bill is passed. Given current uncertainty about what a new farm bill might look like, such sessions would have little value, he said.

Youngren said farmers "are good at growing crops. But we need to have the framework of a farm bill to grow them in."

Federal spending on ag research and trade promotion also is threatened, he said.

Brian Eggebrecht, a Malta, Mont., farmer and president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, said the future of federal crop insurance is a huge concern.

"We've been pretty happy with crop insurance," he said. "It's provided some certainty to the producer and the ag lender. We want to keep that affordable, viable safety net."

He also stressed the importance of the disaster provision in the farm bill. "We need something to tie in with crop insurance."