A cliff-hanger for agriculture

Prolonged wrangling over a new US farm bill has sown indecision among Valley growers

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As congressional leaders scramble to agree on bipartisan spending cuts, Eastern Washington farmers have been left with uncertainty about the insurance, marketing and crop research programs many of them depend on.

Indecision in the lame duck session has also meant indecision among farmers about what to plant and how much in the coming year to meet commodity market forecasts.

While averting the fiscal cliff has dominated discussions on Capitol Hill, legislators as of the Dec. 21 press time for this story had yet to pass a new farm bill, leaving many farmers wondering about Congress’ priorities.

“They’ve put farms on the back burner,” Ryan Kregger, a Touchet farmer and president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, said of legislators.

The farm bill allocates funding for virtually all American agricultural programs, from research grants for weather-tolerant crops to income support for farmers. For Walla Walla’s wheat farmers, it also provides for crop insurance.

“Farm families need that protection because they’re so vulnerable to risks that they can’t control,” said Alex McGregor, president of the McGregor Company, which sells agricultural inputs and equipment.

Walla Walla County Commissioner Perry Dozier, who has been raising wheat for decades, explained that farm bill insurance programs help provide certainty in the face of fluctuating prices and weather and climate conditions.

For instance, Dozier said, prices on fertilizer, fuel and other inputs were unusually high in 2008 but the price of wheat fell sharply before harvest.

“One of the main things that saved a lot of growers was having that revenue insurance,” he said.

Dozier said he typically makes planting decisions at least a year in advance, and often more. With no clear long-term policy from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it becomes difficult to accurately forecast commodity prices or make informed decisions about which crops to plant.

Research and export marketing programs also affect local grape growers. While wine grapes aren’t a major commodity crop as defined by the USDA, they benefit from funding allocated to so-called “minor” crops, a category which includes apples, citrus, berries and hops.

Through farm bill appropriations, USDA money can be granted to universities, who partner with industry groups to share findings.

Lynne Chamberlain, president of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers and a Walla Walla Valley winemaker, said that current research priorities include plants that do well in cold temperatures, as well as studying regional climate.

“We’re fairly new as a wine-growing industry compared to California,” said Chamberlain. Because of this, there is little existing research on how to optimize wine production in the cooler Northwest climate.

Local producers also are affected by leafroll virus, and farm bill-funded studies have been researching the disease to help producers better prevent it. Without continued grant money, studies like this would disappear.

“That affects Walla Walla specifically. There are farms out here that have [that virus],” said Chamberlain.

Export marketing also is a critical component of the bill. Upward of 90 percent of the wheat grown in Walla Walla County is exported internationally. The organizations that market American grain abroad often rely on farm bill grant money to fund these programs.

“These programs help us keep links to customers around the globe,” said McGregor. “Keeping that foreign access program strong and vital is key.”

The last farm bill was passed in 2007 and expired earlier this year. Without a new farm bill in place for 2013, agricultural policy and programs will revert back to the 1949 Agricultural Adjustment Act, which was the last permanent piece of agricultural legislation passed in the United States.

While mandatory programs, such as food stamps, will continue to be funded, any other program, including research and export marketing, could be terminated absent supporting legislation.

The Senate passed a farm bill in July, but the House version has remained stalled in negotiations. The Senate version is similar to the proposed House bill in many ways, though the two differ in their methods of insuring farmers against loss.

The Senate version seeks to limit risk to farmers by covering losses at both a county and individual level when prices drop below a five-year average for the crop in question. This provision represents a change from previous farm subsidy programs, which paid farmers directly per acre cultivated.

These changes are a response to several factors, including changing market conditions for commodity crops. Prices have been high for the past few years, meaning that direct subsidy payments are not needed by as many farmers.

Decreasing direct subsidies also lowers costs, an important consideration in a year where spending has been subject to fierce debates in Congress. In total, the Senate bill cut spending by $23 billion, through reductions in food stamp spending and modifications to farm subsidies.

The House version of the bill has been delayed by regional disagreements, as well as conflict over spending cuts, currently set at around $35 billion.

Southern states dominate the House Agriculture Committee, and have charged the proposed Senate version with favoring Midwestern farmers, saying that insurance programs don’t work well on Southern crops.

“It hasn’t helped that the agriculture committee weren’t more unified in their approach, and it certainly didn’t help that leadership didn’t make time for it to be considered on the floor,” said Brett Blankenship, a wheat grower from Adams County who serves as Secretary-Treasurer for the National Association of Wheat Growers.

Even if Congress is able to create a compromise version of the bill before the session is due to end on Jan. 3, the late hour causes many local producers to question government priorities.

While discussions about the fiscal cliff took time away from negotiations, Chamberlain said a farm bill should have been passed earlier in the year.

“I’m amazed at how long it has taken,” she said. “The farm bill is what’s feeding people. It’s hugely important and should not be held hostage for political reasons.”

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