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Farm policy divisions run deep

Farm policy divisions run deep
Until September, farmers will essentially be stranded in what is shaping up to be a public policy impasse — and here’s the part that disturbs many of them: There’s even the chance, however remote, that the current farm bill may be the last one.

“Until September,” a largely forgotten movie from the 1980s about a young American woman stranded in Paris after missing her flight, vaguely parallels what is occurring in the U.S. farm community following Congress’s recent decision to extend the current farm bill until September.

Until September, farmers will essentially be stranded in what is shaping up to be a public policy impasse — and here’s the part that disturbs many of them: There’s even the chance, however remote, that the current farm bill may be the last one.

Two recent articles reporting on Congress’s decision to extend the current farm bill illustrate the deep rifts of the shape of farm policy that have contributed to the current impasse.

On Jan. 9, the Southeast Missourian reported concerns expressed by local dairy producers that future farm bills no longer will be written with the stability of dairy commodity prices as an underlying goal — something they have taken for granted for more than 70 years.

The current extension — temporarily, at least — saved the Milk Income Loss Program, which compensates producers when prices fall below a certain level.

Likewise, the extension preserved drought protection, though without allocating any funds — a decision that many producers view as an ominous sign of the fiscal constraints that will be reflected in the next farm bill.

On the other hand the extension has left many opponents of the current farm bill — economists, environmentalist, taxpayer advocates, global anti-hunger activists and even a few farmers — demanding new legislation that ends the kinds of price supports that have aided dairy producers and other farmers for decades, according to a Jan. 8 report carried recently by National Public Radio.

At Auburn University, Jim Novak, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System economist and professor of agricultural economics, has invested his career studying previous farm bills in an effort to divine the shape of future bills.

All bets off

This year, the bets are off, he says.

“We’re dealing with a divided farm constituency, each of which seems to be working toward its own end,” Novak says.

“Because of scarce federal dollars, you don’t have the sort of horse trading and earmarks that characterized previous farm bills. All this deficit and budget talk is scaring people, prompting many of them to cover their own interests.”

In previous years, many of these groups — corn and soybean groups, cotton interests and the food and nutrition advocates — tended to work together, Novak says.

“Everyone used to hang together and fight through to the end, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.”

There has even been talk of separating the food and nutrition provisions into new legislation.

“If that proves to be the case, it will spell the end of the farm bill,” Novak says.

Even so, a few key congressional policymakers on both sides of the aisle vow that if enough of their lawmakers evince a will, they will find a way to pass a new farm bill.

Several lawmakers say they will act only if they see evidence of a genuine bipartisan willingness to cooperate on a new bill.

Whatever the case, Novak says farmers can be virtually certain that whatever emerges will not be as generous as previous farm bills.

“Some programs will likely go by the wayside, including possibly the Conservation Security Programs (CSP),” he says. “Direct and counter-cyclical program payments may be molded into some other program, though it’s likely direct payments will be eliminated entirely.”

Novak, who is completing a book about the history and evolution of farm policy, says farm bill legislation was initially drafted by policymakers to provide farmers with price supports during the darkest days of the Depression.

For the past 70 years, especially within recent years, debate over the farm bill has essentially been fought over whether farm policy should reflect a Keynesian approach — an approach patterned after the economic thought of Alfred Lord Keynes who envisioned an expansionist role for securing price support for farmers — or a free-market approach modeled on the teachings of economist Friedrich von Hayek who advocated allowing market forces to work out these prices.

Within recent years, Novak says the battle has intensified between Keynesians, who want to see current government programs continued, while Hayekians advocate a more free-market approach to future farm bills.

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