BARRE — While many wanted a new five-year farm bill to emerge from the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, a debate is on as to whether the extension of the current farm bill until September that was included in the deal is a good thing.
Annie Cheatham has little doubt about where she stands. She’s the executive director of the New England Farmers Union, a lobbying group, and she called the extension a disaster for farmers in the region.
Under the extension, funding for programs is no longer guaranteed, and how to deal with the fluctuating milk market is an issue.
Cheatham’s main concern is that the new five-year farm bill approved by the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee was not included as part of the fiscal cliff deal and essentially was killed.
She said she was disappointed that nine months of hard work done on a bipartisan level was “ignored” and a new bill will have to be created. She blamed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Vice President Joe Biden for not including the proposed farm bill in their “fiscal cliff” agreement.
Don Stewart, communications director for McConnell, wrote in an email that both sides agreed on an extension because there was no consensus on the new farm bill.
When asked why the bill wasn’t included since the Senate had already passed it, Stewart wrote: “There were a lot of things that COULD have been put into the bill. That doesn’t mean the bill would have passed with those things in it. Rather than let the programs expire, Republicans and Democrats, Congress and the White House, agreed to do an extension.”
Biden’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Cheatham said the upshot of the extension is that local agricultural programs that previously could count on guaranteed funding will now have to plan on discretionary funding, meaning the money is no longer guaranteed. Those programs include one that provides grants to improve farmers markets and the Rural Energy for America program, which offers incentives for farmers to install new systems and make improvements to their operations to reduce energy use.
As part of the extension, the Milk Income Loss Contract Program (MILC) will be continued. The program, which pays farmers for income lost to lower milk prices, had ended in September, when the previous farm bill expired.
Sen. Patrick Leahy said he was able, as a member of the Senate’s senior leadership, to put that program back in place for Vermont’s farmers. He said the program will be retroactive to October so anyone who may have been eligible for the money during the three-month lapse in the program will receive it.
While Leahy said his office has been flooded with calls from Vermont farmers saying, “Thank you for protecting us,” he is disappointed the new farm legislation passed by the Senate did not become law.
He said the leadership in the House refused to even bring the five-year farm bill to the floor for debate, even though the legislation would have saved $23 billion in federal spending.
As for the prospect of reduced discretionary funding at the local level, Leahy said that as senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, if there’s money to be had for Vermont farmers, he’ll get it.
Leahy said the next step is to try to re-create the farm bill under the new fiscal rules and get it passed. He still expects to face opposition in the Republican-controlled House.
“When you have the tea party in the House — they don’t care what they do to agriculture or anything else — it’s going to be more difficult,” he said.
Clark Hinsdale is president of the Vermont Farm Bureau, a nonprofit trade association of agricultural producers. He called Cheatham’s characterization of the extension as a disaster “ridiculous.”
Hinsdale said that while he is also disappointed the new farm bill was not approved, he is happy to have any programs at all. That might not be the case, he said, had Congress left the extension out of the negotiations, or if it had simply let the country go over the “cliff.”
“No matter how disappointed we may be ... the fact of the matter is we still have a functioning set of agricultural programs here in the Northeast,” he said.
He said the extension is a kind of placeholder so work on a new farm bill can start back up.
Hinsdale was also happy the extension will run only until Aug. 31, because it will force Congress to get the new farm bill enacted and fund some of the programs it would create.
One of the programs, the Dairy Security Act, would replace the MILC program. Hinsdale said the MILC program pays farmers only for their losses due to falling milk prices. The new program instead would address the problem causing the falling prices: surplus milk.
Hinsdale said farmers who sign up for the new program will be compensated just as before, but they will also agree to cut back production of milk if there is a surplus, theoretically bringing the price back up.
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