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Life without a farm bill

It may have been a shock to many that the U.S. House of Representatives Farm Bill failed when it was brought to the floor for votes, but it wasn’t a surprise to many inside the Beltway. The lack of support came from both sides of the aisle and the main ingredient for failure was the issue of food stamps. Some 50 Republicans voted no regardless of the House amending the bill to add work requirements to food stamps. For the Democrats, just 24 backed the final bill. The 16 Democrats that didn’t, but were expected to, still wouldn’t have been enough to pass the bill.

Has a decades-old farm policy coalition been fractured with this latest round of votes?

“Farm bills since the 60s have been passed by a group of politicians from farm states and inner cities,” said Allen Olson, one of the country’s foremost crop insurance litigators, speaking at the 5th Annual Ohio Ag Law Symposium. “Essentially, there has been a deal made for the inner city side to vote for the farm programs and for the farm side to vote for nutrition programs. That coalition has kept farm legislation going over the years. I think that coalition is fractured and quite possibly dead.”

Olson says because of that, there probably would not be a farm bill anytime soon and this is the first time in his career that he has heard public calls for decoupling the two issues into their own respective bills.

“If that were to happen there is no doubt in my mind that the food stamp program would be largely preserved,” Olson said. “It is not so clear how farm subsidies would fare. They would likely be greatly reduced or even eliminated.”

For right now, an extension of current farm law may be the only option, but not the best one according to Olson. He notes that the agriculture community has decided that direct payments are not the way to spend limited resources and now is an opportunity to do away with them altogether. An extension keeps them alive and takes funds away from possible future farm programs.

With almost a century of continuous farm legislation in the books, many can’t even imagine a life without a farm bill. Olson put that possibility into perspective.

“Assuming the weather cooperates even a little bit, many farmers will go on just fine and won’t really miss this money,” Olson said. “The exception will be dairy farmers and others who will be put into a harder position but the majority of farmers will wonder what in the world they were complaining about before. “

If the weather would turn less favorable, Olson suspects that the process of passing annual Ad-Hoc disaster programs that are targeted to the specific disaster effects, as has happened in the past, will come back.

Olson acknowledges that there are some programs, like crop insurance subsidies, are still very important along with some programs that are doing more good things than many producers think. On the flip side, he said there are also a lot of “pork-type” programs that may be missed but probably won’t hurt many people, particularly in the area of government funded research projects.

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