The world didn't end when the 2008 Farm Bill expired last month, but it did throw a vast array of federally supported agricultural programs into limbo. As a result Congress left farmers wondering if some of the programs they depend on will continue.
Marketing programs, research and even milk price protections disappeared -- or soon will. Yet members of Congress -- the House in particular -- left the new farm bill hanging and deserted the Capitol to hit the campaign trail.
Though the Senate passed a farm bill and the House Agriculture Committee passed another version, it never made it to the House floor for a vote. This is yet a another case of politics taking precedence over all else.
A farm bill is not just an important piece of legislation. It is a road map for the next five years that lays out the agenda for what the USDA does. To not have that map in hand leaves hundreds of programs, and the farmers who depend on them, up in the air.
Here's one example. U.S. Wheat Associates is a highly effective marketing organization partially funded by the 2008 Farm Bill through the Foreign Market Development Program and the Market Access Program. Those programs provide the bulk of $12.6 million in federal funding to develop and maintain foreign markets for U.S. wheat. Most of the wheat grown in the Northwest is sold overseas, so that marketing effort is fundamental to maintaining an orderly marketplace. If foreign markets go away, domestic wheat prices will ultimately take a hit.
The market development program expired with the old farm bill, and the access program will expire at the end of the year. Though farmers pitch in $5 million, they could not afford to maintain the level of activity those other programs fund.
Without action by Congress, no one knows the level of support those critical programs will receive. Other foreign marketing efforts similarly rely on those and other programs, meaning not just wheat growers but virtually every U.S. crop marketed overseas is at risk.
Small dairy farmers are particularly hard-hit by gyrating milk prices. The Milk Income Loss Contract program -- called MILC -- provided a safety net when milk prices fell far below the cost of production. Though the program was not perfect, it did provide help for some operators. That safety net is now gone, courtesy of congressional inaction.
Researchers are also left wondering whether their projects, many of which are funded through the farm bill, will continue. And the institutions they work for, such as land-grant colleges, are left with gaping holes in their budgets.
It is said that uncertainty is the worst fate of all. Not knowing what Congress will provide to marketing, research and other important programs in a new farm bill leaves nearly every farmer wondering what the future will bring.
We are told that Congress will take care of many important matters, such as the impasse over taxes and budget deficits, when its members return to the Capitol from campaigning.
A new farm bill should also be on that "to-do" list.