SEATTLE - Many priorities are tugging at members of the "lame-duck" Congress, back in session this week. But farmers in Washington and across the nation are watching one especially closely: progress on a new Farm Bill to guide federal agriculture spending for the next five years.
Washington farmers and ranchers know that the Farm Bill covers a lot more than agriculture, including food stamps and tax credits for wind-energy production. To Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, it's essential that the bill is passed to maintain funding for programs important to rural America.
"The Farm Bill sets the rules for rural-development programs, for support for small-business development, for community development. It sets the rules for conservation, to ensure that we leave our land as well to the next generation as we received it."
The 2012 Farm Bill was passed by the U.S. Senate this summer and has won approval by the House Agriculture Committee, but hasn't been scheduled for a vote in the full House of Representatives. The main sticking point is the amount of money that will be spent on - or cut from - the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
With federal budget pressures, Hassebrook says he understands some belt-tightening is necessary. He thinks the best option is to put a cap on the premium subsidies for crop insurance for mega-farms - and he estimates that move would save $1 billion.
"In other words, we could say the federal government won't pay more than $40,000 of a mega-farm's crop insurance premiums. That alone would generate the savings to make up all the cuts in rural-development programs over the last 10 years."
Of that $1 billion, Hassebrook says, half could be used for deficit reduction, and the rest to fund conservation and rural-development programs - which he calls vital for the future prosperity of rural America. Many of those programs now are in limbo, since the 2008 Farm Bill expired at the end of September.