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Legislators, farm groups optimistic new farm bill could be OK’d

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A one-year extension of the current farm bill that was set to be voted on by the House of Representatives today was unexpectedly pulled by Republican leaders Tuesday, as legislators from both sides of the aisle said they wouldn’t vote for it because the 2012 farm bill is now ready for a vote.

House Republican leaders had planned to pass the extension by the end of the week before Congress breaks for its five-week summer recess. But now that the unpopular plan has been scrapped, legislators who back the five-year farm bill are feeling more upbeat that it will be passed by Sept. 30, when the bill that was passed in 2008 expires.

“I wouldn’t say the extension has been scrapped for good, but I think they pulled it because people think this is a bad game plan for farmers in communities that need help,” said Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, who heard about the news at the end of the day Tuesday. Most Republicans and Democrats in the House, including Mr. Owens, said they wouldn’t vote for the extension unless there was a guarantee that the 2012 farm bill would be voted on. The Senate’s version of the bill was passed in June.

That commitment “is the only way in which an extension could get approved,” Mr. Owens said. “That’s corroborated by the fact that the (majority) Republican caucus pulled the vote today. I think the longer this goes on, the better chance we have of bringing the five-year bill to the board for a vote.”

Mr. Owens is hopeful that a bipartisan committee will be formed to draft a final farm bill based on its House and Senate versions during the summer break. That could allow just enough time for the final bill to be voted on and approved by the end of September.

“They’ll be able to negotiate substantially on the bill in August, which will provide more certainty for farmers,” he said.

Farming groups across the country, including the New York Farm Bureau, oppose passing a one-year extension of the current bill, which they say likely would ruin the chance of approving the 2012 farm bill. If an extension is approved instead of the farm bill, the amount of funding available to dairy farmers in Northern New York would drop markedly, said Steve Ammerman, manager of public affairs for the New York Farm Bureau. The move would reduce funding for the Milk Income Loss Contract insurance program, which provides reimbursements to farmers when milk prices drop below a federal target.

“Dairy farmers here would get less assistance if a one-year extension goes through, and everyone’s trying to keep the pressure up to pass the farm bill instead of the extension,” Mr. Ammerman said. “We believe there are enough votes from Republicans and Democrats in the House to do that — and both parties could take credit for getting it done.”

Passage of an extension also would delay the establishment of a new margin insurance program in the farm bill set to replace the MILC program. Free for farmers to participate in, the voluntary program is designed to help them combat low milk prices and high feed costs; it would reimburse farmers when the difference between their costs and prices exceeds a certain threshold. At the same time, it would attempt to manage the national milk supply by penalizing farmers who produce more milk than planned.

Farm groups and legislators — including the Obama administration — have urged House Republican leaders to vote on the farm bill before Congress leaves for summer recess, but so far to no avail. Despite its bipartisan support, leaders have used their power to prevent the bill from being voted on because of the political fallout that might have before the election. The bill was approved by the House Agriculture Committee on July 12 with a 35-11 vote.

Because GOP conservatives don’t have enough votes to pass the farm bill single-handedly, Mr. Owens said, they would need to reach across the aisle and cooperate with Democrats. But if that happens, Republican leaders in the House believe it could be chalked up as a win for the Democratic Party before the election.

“I think their plan has now registered in the minds of farmers,” he said. “If you look at the fact that bipartisan bills were passed by the Senate and House Agriculture Committee, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be voted on.”

That’s why pressure from legislators, farm groups and farmers now needs to be dialed up to move the process forward, Mr. Owens said. He urged farmers here to contact House Speaker John A. Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor to express their concerns.

But Republicans and Democrats may still clash on what a final bill includes. The level of food stamp spending in the bill has been arguably the most controversial item. The version passed by the House Agriculture Committee calls for $1.6 billion a year in food stamp cuts, while the Senate’s version calls for $400 million.

There are also many dairy plants and farmers across the Northeast that oppose passage of the farm bill. Because it opposes the new margin insurance policy, the Northeast Dairy Foods Association would like to see a one-year extension bill passed to allow time for a revised bill to be negotiated in the coming year. The association represents 120 dairy plants across eight Northeast states, including New York. Vice President Bruce W. Krupke said that the supply management piece of the margin insurance program, which regulates the amount of milk farmers and producers can make, could hamper the growing dairy industry in New York. He questioned whether the government-run program will lure enough dairy farmers to control the milk supply; 3 percent of dairy farmers in the U.S. produce 50 percent of the milk supply, and 97 percent produce the rest.

“Dairy producers have created this huge, new policy that’s voluntary, and I don’t think a hardworking dairy farmer is going to want to be penalized if they’re being productive by producing more milk,” Mr. Krupke said. “If the government can’t sign up enough dairy farmers to participate, the penalty system won’t work and will take incentive away from farmers.”

He called Mr. Owens’s support of the program misguided. “If he thinks it’s going to expand the industry, he’ll find out it’s going to contract it instead because dairy producers are going to be penalized,” he said.

Mr. Krupke contended that legislators are attempting to ram through a farm bill at a time when election politics are tainting their judgment.

“We would strongly support a one-year extension because it will help take the politics out of good debate and discussion of what’s best for the agriculture and dairy industries right now,” Mr. Krupke said. “Right now, politics is playing too big of a role in forcing this down legislators’ throats, and the election year could force a vote on this farm bill when it doesn’t smell right.”

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