Farmers Twisting In The Wind Without New Farm Bill

It's wheat harvest season in Kansas, but also a busy time for federal Farm Service Agency workers there who are up against a deadline to figure a controversial subsidy called "direct payments". The farm bill governs almost all agricultural policy, and has direct bearing on both those endeavors. It would modify crop insurance subsidies and end direct payments. But there is no farm bill. The House has failed two years running to pass one, leaving farmers in limbo. Fortunately for farmers, it's a position they've grown quite accustomed to.

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Farmers work at the mercy of three forces that are largely outside their control: weather, markets, and government. The weather has been good in many parts of the country and the markets are up. But government remains the wild card. Congress failed to pass the Farm Bill, the huge package of legislation that lays out years of food policy. And that leaves farmers in limbo.

But as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, they're getting used to it.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The wheels may have come off the Farm Bill but out in Kansas, actual farming is going full tilt.

STEVEN KALB: We're getting the bugs out the combine. Just getting started harvesting wheat.

MORRIS: Steven Kalb, a young man with a green cap, stands in a golden field near Baldwin City, Kansas, and he looks pretty happy.

S. KALB: Yeah, this is Kansas wheat harvest at its best.

MORRIS: This wheat does look good, a complete reversal from last year when drought killed corn and soybeans around here. And wheat prices are nearly double what they were just a few years ago. Right now, the weather and markets are the least of Kalb's worries.

S. KALB: Well, I feel the government is the least trustworthy of those three, probably.

MORRIS: Congress regulates food policy with the Farm Bill. About 80 percent of it goes for food subsidies for lower income people, programs like SNAP and WIC. Then there are programs designed to keep farmers in business and the food coming. That's money for subsidized crop insurance, agricultural research, conservation, on and on. The Farm Bill's collapse in the House last week throws all this into limbo.

Up in the cab of his combine, in front of space-age controls, Kermit Kalb, Steven's dad, seems pretty sanguine about the political impasse.

KERMIT KALB: Washington's a long way from here. And we know, we heard the bill had failed but not much we can do about it.

MORRIS: Something similar happened last year. The House couldn't pass a farm bill, the old one expired, and Congress patched with a one-year extension. Kalb is not that anxious about it.

K. KALB: That's part of agriculture with the weather, diseases, insects, government.

MORRIS: One thing that bugs Kalb about not having a new farm bill is that the old one preserves direct payments to farmers, payments he receives each year, whether he needs them or not.

K. KALB: Somebody's got to pay that, you know. And that's not fair.

MORRIS: Direct payments are a hold-over from a 1990s plan intended to wean farmers off subsidies. They were supposed be temporary. Steven Kalb says they pay land owners each year, regardless of need.

S. KALB: You just kind of walk into the farm service agency and say: I'm a farmer and I farm this piece of ground. And they say, well, here's the payment for that farm.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BELL)

JOHN ALLEY: This is one of our busiest times of year.

MORRIS: At the County Farm Service Agency, in Lawrence, Kansas, John Alley is up against a deadline to process requests for direct payments. Hundreds of red folders are heaped in little stacks all over this office.

ALLEY: Producers have to come in and report their acres...

MORRIS: If last year's Farm Bill would have passed, Alley wouldn't have to bother with all this, because it would have ended direct payments, saving billions of dollars a year. That's something most farmers agree with, even guys like Mike Shultz, who farms out in western Kansas, where serious drought is still killing crops.

MIKE SCHULTZ: All our wheat was finished in the drought, covered it under crop insurance.

MORRIS: Crop insurance has become the main safety net across farm country, keeping farmers in business through disasters. Taxpayers pick up most of the cost. The House Farm Bill would have enhanced crop insurance, and expanded coverage to crops not fully included now. That was a sticking point for some environmentally-minded congressmen and fiscal conservatives. The bill might have passed over those objections, though, if not for a dispute over the size of cuts to low-income food programs.

Schultz thinks farmers would do better if Congress considered farm subsidies on their own, separate from nutrition assistance.

SCHULTZ: Those of us that work are getting tired of footing the bill. So I'm for decoupling the deal.

TOM VILSACK: If that were to happen, it would be difficult, potentially, to get the kind of support for rural programs that we currently get.

MORRIS: Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, says divorcing SNAP from Ag policy would bust up a grand rural/urban coalition that's passed generations of farm bills, even as rural populations dwindle and lose political clout.

For the most part, these are good times for Midwestern crop farmers. But as they well-know, the weather, the markets and Washington, D.C. are fickle. They just hope that the next time the climate or crop prices go crazy, Congress will be ready with a new farm bill.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

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