Agriculture's Waning Influence In Washington Hinders Farmers

fromWOI

Many Midwest farmers are behind in planting corn and soybeans, thanks to a cool spring and heavy rain. Now, they're getting a chill from Congress, too, as the House voted down a new farm bill last week. In Iowa, some farmers say they're disappointed and frustrated that farm policy is on hold, largely because of arguments over nutrition programs they think shouldn't even be in the farm bill.

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Farmers were shocked and dismayed when the farm bill failed to pass in the House last week. For decades, major farm programs have flown through Congress with relative ease, partly because nutrition programs, mainly food stamps, got lumped in with agriculture policy to attract the votes of urban, mostly Democratic lawmakers. Now with congressional Republicans intent on cutting food stamps, that alliance has frayed and agriculture's influence in Washington is waning.

Iowa Public Radio's Amy Mayer reports.

AMY MAYER, BYLINE: Every five years, Congress is supposed to bring forward a new farm bill. It covers everything from rural development and energy research, to crop insurance subsidies and, the biggest part, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps. That accounts for nearly 80 percent of the current farm bill which expired last year.

The law was extended but after last week's vote, many farmers no longer see Congress as a reliable ally.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACTOR)

MAYER: On a hot humid morning in Kanawha, Iowa, a tractor is towing wagons full of farmers to the last stop on their field day at the Iowa State University Northern Research Farm. Entomologist Erin Hodgson is handing out information about corn root worm and other bugs that can damage crops.

ERIN HODGSON: The single most important thing you can do is crop rotation.

MAYER: Farmers lob questions at her, eager for tools to help them grow better crops. Farmer Bill Meyers is sitting in the shade, eating a pulled pork sandwich, and wondering why Congress can't get the farm bill passed.

BILL MEYERS: Disappointed in it, we need a farm bill. We can find all kind of billions for the Defense Department. But they want to cut at least $20 billion off the nutrition side. It's a mistake.

MAYER: Nutrition cuts are a major stumbling block in the House, which is trying to bring down the overall size of the farm bill, currently about $100 billion a year.

But at an adjacent picnic table, farmer Jim Mattox says maybe it's time to just separate nutrition programs from agriculture policies altogether, so farming is not a pawn in the food stamp fight. For now, Mattox says its farm work not Congress that he's focusing his attention on. But he'd like lawmakers to do their jobs too, so when he comes out of the fields he knows what to expect.

JIM MATTOX: It's impossible to plan, if the planners in Washington don't know what they're doing.

DAVID SMITH: I'd like to throw them all out and replace them.

(LAUGHTER)

MAYER: Retired farmer David Smith is frustrated by the farm bill impasse in Congress.

SMITH: There's no reason why they shouldn't came up with a farm bill. We're hanging out in mid-air.

MAYER: Smith says with 60 years in the fields, he's used to weather altering his plans. But federal policy, that's not supposed to be one of the seasonal surprises.

In Iowa and Nebraska, the full House delegations did vote for the farm bill. Iowa State University Ag economist Chad Hart says, in some cases, gritting their teeth and voting for a bill they didn't like. But other farm state roll-calls speak to a weakening of farming's sway in Congress. In Kansas, for example, the four Republicans split their votes. Hart says farmers know changes are coming.

CHAD HART: They look at the government like Mother Nature: We don't know what you're going to do, but once you do it, figure out what to do around it.

MAYER: But Hart says farmers can't wait to the last minute to get things done. And he says Congress shouldn't either.

HART: We're looking now, you know, you're looking at $7 corn, which is a record high, soybeans at 14, $15. That is with the stability we have right now. If you had people delaying to the last moment, we'd be talking about much higher prices than that.

MAYER: For now, farm policy is under an extension that expires in September. Farmers hope that by harvest time, Congress will be able to put aside its disagreements over food assistance and produce a substantial farm bill they can rely on.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Mayer in Ames, Iowa.

MONTAGNE: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues.

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