A prolonged drought  across a wide swath of rural America has left farmers and ranchers in an increasingly precarious financial situation. And the need to ease pressure on bottom lines is providing lawmakers with the impetus to loudly call for the full House to debate a new farm bill.
Following the full Senate’s passage of its farm bill, on July 11 the House Agriculture Committee passed its version of the farm bill out committee on a bipartisan vote.
House leadership – Ohio Rep. John Boehner, Speaker, and Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, Majority Leader -- has so far refused to schedule floor time for the farm bill. The bill will see no action this week and faces an unfavorable timeline for passage and conference. Following this week, only four legislative days will remain prior to Congress’ August recess. Current law expires on September 30.
Warnings and complaints about the consequences of not passing a new farm bill have so far left Boehner and Cantor unmoved. Proponents of the legislation hope that bringing the current drought to the argument will goad more action.
Asked during a Monday morning briefing why the House hadn’t taken up the new farm bill, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wasn’t charitable to House leadership. “That’s a question you should direct specifically to (Boehner and Cantor). The Majority Leader indicated he had his finger on the ‘pause button’ the moment the farm bill passed through the Senate. (Boehner) has indicated his belief that crop insurance is all that’s necessary in terms of drought assistance. But that leaves out all the livestock producers – literally hundreds of thousands of people – in the country.
“I don’t know what the motivation is, what the decision-making is. All I can tell you is there’s no more serious work to be done in the House between now and the August recess – or during or after the August recess – for rural America, for farmers, producers and ranchers who are struggling than getting a (farm bill) through the process…
“Whatever their reasons, they aren’t good enough to justify delay,” said Vilsack.
What would an extension of the 2008 farm bill mean to those hurt by the drought?
“Let’s be clear: extending the 2008 farm bill will not revive the disaster programs,” warned Vilsack. “Because they’ve expired, it would take affirmative action to revive them…
“There are budget implications connected to a continuation … of those disaster programs. That’s why it’s important to have it in the context of the overall (farm bill)…
“The concern and risk run as we delay every day is that the chances become greater that this gets wrapped up in a much larger conversation Congress is likely to have on tax policy and additional budget cuts. I fear agriculture will be asked to do more than its fair share.”
Meanwhile, the White House is touting new measures to deal with the drought fallout.
“We announced a series of steps last week to try and provide some help and assistance: expanding emergency haying and grazing to areas designated under the Drought Monitor  of D2/D3/D4 counties; additional relief on repayment on CRP  (Conservation Reserve Program) payments for use of CRP land for haying and grazing; and lowered the interest rate on emergency loans and created a streamlined disaster declaration process,” said Vilsack.
More drought-related assistance
On Monday, Vilsack announced additional steps being taken. “With regard to the CRP program, we’re announcing expansion of lands that can be used for hay and grazing to include not just D2/D3/D4 counties but also D0 and D1 counties. In other words, all counties that are currently on the Drought Monitor as being somewhere between ‘abnormally dry’ to ‘extremely dry’ will now be included in the emergency haying and grazing effort.
“In addition, we’ll continue to expand and allow for the reduction from 25 percent to 10 percent of the rental payments that would be returned as a result of use of the land.
“We’ll also authorize FSA  (Farm Service Agency) to allow producers to sell harvested hay – harvested through the emergency hay – only for this year. That’s not ordinary for us today but, given the breadth and severity of the situation, it may very well be an opportunity for folks to provide help and assistance to their neighbors who are suffering.”
The Obama administration will also utilize “discretionary authority under the EQIP  (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) program at NRCS  (Natural Resources Conservation Service). We’re going to allow certain modifications to current EQIP contracts. Those modifications will allow a rescheduling of practice applications including an extension of the contract expiration deadline for producers. If the seriousness of the circumstance requires a cancellation of the contract, that will be allowed.
“If, for some reason, practices were put in place and because of the drought they weren’t successful … we’ll look for opportunities to work with farmers to reapply those practices.”
Only a limited amount of fiscal year 2012 EQIP funds are left.
“So, we’ll direct those funds be focused on areas hardest hit by drought – areas designated as D3 and D4 counties,” said Vilsack. “We’ll allow the use of those resources for prescribed grazing, for cover crops, for livestock watering facilities and improvements to irrigation systems…
“In the Wetland Reserve Program  (WRP), we’ll direct NRCS to expedite the compatible use authorization requests for haying and grazing. That (will allow us to) authorize haying and grazing as WRP easement areas.”
Farmers have circled August 15 on their calendars -- the first date when crop insurance premiums are due. Vilsack hopes insurance companies will hold off a bit before collecting.
“We know that insurance companies have been providing a grace period before interest is assessed on those uncollected premiums. The grace period is usually a 45-day period through September 30.
“We’re asking, in a letter we’re directing to crop insurance companies today, to consider expanding and extending that grace period for an additional 30 days to expire on October 31. The reason for the extension is it gives us additional time, the companies additional time, to assess claims and provide some producers with a bit more flexibility to pay given the current situation with crops and livestock.”
Tools available to him are limited, admitted Vilsack, who returned to complaints about the House leadership. “What has to happen is the House has to have a vote on the (new farm bill) as soon as possible. There is nothing more important to rural America, nothing more important to the producers, farmers and ranchers of this country, than action on this bill.
“Action on this bill could very well revive the disaster program for livestock producers, which expired on September 30 of last year. Those programs, along with assistance under SURE, provided 400,000 payments of nearly $4 billion of assistance and help as a result of floods, fires and droughts in the past. … There’s no excuse or reason why the House cannot take this matter up.”