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Groups push to impress on Congress the effect of shutdown, no farm bill

Oct. 17, 2013 | 0 comments


A group of 400 local, state, regional and national organizations joined together this week to send a strong message to Congress that the federal government shutdown and lack of a comprehensive farm bill are hurting Americans in many walks of life.

During a conference call with 25 reporters Tuesday they stressed the importance of a "full and fair" farm bill that addresses real needs across the country.

Kathy Ozer of the National Family Farm Coalition said some of her members' concerns include the importance of keeping a permanent farm policy package on the books and the wholesale de-funding of certain programs like the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act (GIPSA.)

She said she hopes an eventual farm bill package will include a provision placed in the Senate bill by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would require a fair pricing investigation for dairy farmers.

Ozer said they have not gotten any indication of the timing of the conference process.

"We often feel frustrated with getting our position heard and now (with the shutdown) they are not there to be held responsible."

John Zippert, director of operations for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives said the lack of a farm bill and the government shutdown have combined to create a crisis situation for many programs that help African-American and underprivileged farmers in the southeast region.

"In addition to the government shutdown and the debt limit crisis the extension of the farm bill ended. We are living in a country without a farm bill – without a lot of certainty."

There were 37 programs that were not even included in the farm bill extension that ended Sept. 30, he added. Some of these stranded or orphan programs were those that helped beginning farmers, market promotion and community-based projects like those his organization deals with.

With farm programs in disarray and the government shut down, Zippert and others on the teleconference said they are unable to get the payments they are due from earlier federal grants they received.

Zippert said his organization was laying off 10 people, which amounts to 25 percent of its workforce because of the lack of funding.

Dairy programs

Beth Hodge, a dairy farmer in New Hampshire, milks 100 cows and produces a value-added product – pudding – from her cows' milk. She's a member of New Hampshire Farm Bureau and Farmers Union and is on the Sustainable Agriculture working group.

Hodge said the Dairy Security Act provisions, which are included in the Senate's version of the farm bill, are "a lot better than what we had" and hopes Congress can get its act together and pass a comprehensive, five-year bill with the measure included. "We've been waiting for years.

"The DSA isn't perfect, but it could address some of the issues we face. In the last year we have had the highest cost of production we've ever had."

Over the past year her farm paid $37,000 more for grain than it did a year earlier. The shutdown is preventing government agencies from documenting the ongoing grain harvests so prices can reflect the amount of grain being that is entering commercial channels this fall.

"We need prices to go where they should be going," Hodge said, adding that anecdotes show the corn harvest is phenomenal, but without government reports that isn't reflected in a lower corn price in the marketplace.

One of the programs that was stranded in the wake of Congress's inability to get a five-year farm bill done was one offering grants for value-added producers.

Value-added products have been touted as a way to bring more income especially to smaller dairy farms and she did that. But now the grant program has disappeared.

Conservation impacted

Bill Wenzel, agricultural program director for the Izaak Walton League, one of the oldest conservation organizations in the country, said conservation programs are taking a "double whammy" with the government shutdown and the lack of a farm bill.

His organization, which includes many farmers in the Midwest, is pushing for mandatory linkage of conservation compliance with crop insurance subsidies – the new method Congress is using to support commodity agriculture.

"We need to re-establish that linkage. As long as we're talking about extensions and until we pass a new farm bill, conservation will be hurt."

Wenzek said he hopes that many of those 37 orphaned programs, which were not included in the farm bill extension, will be re-enacted if and when a new farm bill is approved. Many conservation programs have been crippled by budget cuts and the sequester, he said.

One of the most crucial is the Grassland Reserve Program. "We are losing an estimated 30 acres per hour of critical grassland," he said.

In South Dakota alone there are 900 applications for the program pending and not being acted upon because there is no farm bill.

Patti Martinson, executive director of Northeast New Mexico Economic Development Association in Taos, said the combination of the government shutdown and lack of a farm bill are causing "devastation" in her region, an area that has worked for 27 years to re-build a local food system.

Under U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, her Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers (OASCFR) program had begun to get funding and now 40 businesses are making local food products for those in the area.

But the shutdown means there is no reimbursement for the local programs run by the various organizations. "No farm bill means so much uncertainty" and northern New Mexico, with its large tribal groups, is really "entering a state of crisis," she said.

Hunger coalition

Parke Troutman, a policy advocate for the San Diego Hunger Coalition, said there's a lot of "fear and uncertainty" in his community from the government shutdown and the lack of reauthorization of food programs through a farm bill.

"There's often a pretty lean period at the end of the month" for those who use food stamps – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) he said, and the government shutdown is exacerbating that problem.

"There's great potential for profound disruption of SNAP. By Nov. 1 there's a very good chance there will be no dollars for SNAP and a very real chance there will be no life raft for families who need it."

Troutman said he gets frustrated hearing things said on the floor of the House and Senate about the food stamp program that "just aren't true."

The House version of a farm bill, which includes $40 billion in cuts to food programs, "is an attack on the program," he said.

In addition to the cuts, the House provisions make the programs "more bureaucratic" and make the application process more difficult, in some cases adding layers of testing that he feels are designed to deter people from using the program.

Troutman said that when the House passed its "food-only" version of the feeding programs, separate from the farm subsidy provisions, it was passed on a three-year cycle rather than the five-year cycle maintained by the farm policy package. "That was designed to permanently break the connection between the two."

With the government shut down, even the website for SNAP was closed and unresponsive.

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