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Federal shutdown makes fate of farm bill uncertain

GRAND FORKS – The farm bill expired Tuesday – again – to little fanfare.

Overshadowed by the federal government shutdown, the ongoing debate over the bill has largely stayed out of the spotlight. And that worries some agriculture groups.

“A farm bill is very important to family farmers and ranchers,” said Woody Barth, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. “And right now that farm bill process is being pushed back because of the government shutdown and debt ceiling limit that comes about in the middle of October.”

Tuesday’s expiration didn’t create immediate hardship for the farming industry, and major effects won’t be felt until the start of 2014, Barth said. But the lack of a new bill does create a sense of uncertainty among trade and lobbying groups and the farmers they represent.

“Farmers are farming without a farm bill,” Barth said. “But effects of that won’t be felt until Jan. 1.”

The farm bill, which has historically been a bipartisan piece of legislation that combines farm and conservation programs with nutrition assistance, has been a contentious issue for the past two years. The current bill was extended in January after it expired in September 2012.

The debate has centered on proposed cuts to food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The House has approved $40 billion in cuts over the next 10 years, while the Senate’s bill includes $4.5 billion in cuts in the same time period.

In the days leading up the shutdown, progress was made on the farm bill when the House voted to combine the farm and nutrition parts of the bill, which it had separated into two bills over the summer.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said that helped accelerate the negotiation process between the House and Senate. Cramer said Friday that House conferees could be named by the end of this week, which he said would bode well for getting a bill passed by the end of the year.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., was named as a Senate conferee. In a statement, he said savings from the farm bill could be part of the solution to the debate over the debt ceiling, the maximum amount the government can borrow. The government is expected to hit that limit Oct. 17.

According to the Congressional Research Service, farm policy reverts to permanent farm legislation passed in 1938 and 1949 once the farm bill expires. But one of the tangible effects lawmakers often cite would take place Jan. 1 on dairy products, which the government buys to raise demand.

“The high purchase price mandated under permanent law could result in the government outbidding commercial markets for a sizeable share of processor output at considerable government cost and that subsequently could raise the retail price of milk,” according to a CRS report.

Bob Lefebvre, executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, said there would be widespread effects if farm policy reverted to the permanent law.

“The market just wouldn’t be able to react to market signals because of an archaic government system,” Lefebvre said.

Dwight Aakre, an extension farm management specialist with North Dakota State University, said that scenario is drastic enough to force lawmakers to at least extend the farm bill.

Barth said he was “cautiously optimistic” a deal could be reached in the coming months.

“I think we’re hopeful, but it’s been a lot of heavy lifting so far,” Barth said. “There are a lot of other issues that (Congress has) on their plate.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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