In recent weeks, a handful of workshops aimed to help those in agriculture properly approach the 2013 cropping season have been held in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Thus far, the workshops have all gone, “really well,” says Harrison Pittman, director of the National Agricultural Law Center based at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “We’ve been pleased at the level of interest, not just from farmers but also from the lending community and crop insurance industry.”

For a list of upcoming workshops, scroll down.

Since, during the recent “fiscal cliff” lame duck session negotiations, the 2008 farm bill was extended by Congress for a year have lender concerns calmed?

Anecdotally, Pittman says the interactions he’s had with bankers at the meetings prior to the extension showed “extreme concern” about the uncertainty heading into the 2013 cropping season. Several, he says, “voiced frustration that the whole agricultural sector wasn’t as concerned as it should have been and weren’t as up-to-date on the situation and process as it should have been. They saw the workshops’ value in terms of education, what is underway in Commodity Title changes towards more crop insurance in risk management.”

Now, extension in place, “things have changed a bit. One of the most important things for 2013 is the continuation of direct payments.”

However, those aren’t entirely safe, says Pittman who points to the recent Hurricane Sandy disaster aid package when lawmakers proposed eliminating direct payments. He also notes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s mid-January statement that, “what Congress giveth, Congress can taketh away.”

This runs up against a released statement by Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, that direct payments would remain in place through the next crop year.

Even so, “there’s still a lot of uncertainty,” says Pittman. ”A lot can still happen. At the workshops, we’re looking at what will happen between now and September. There are really three major areas that have to play out.”

The three are:

  • The debt ceiling debate.

“That’s heating up, right now. One side, the White House, says the ceiling is not something they’ll negotiate over. On the other side, people are saying, ‘Well, we’re not allowing the ceiling to be raised without spending cuts.’”

  • Sequestration.

“The sequestration cuts have been delayed to March. That boils down to about $1.2 trillion over nine years in cuts. About $110 billion in automatic cuts would kick in between defense spending and a variety of areas in domestic spending.”

  • The lack of annual appropriation.

“We’re still operating under a continuing resolution through March 27.”

Of the three areas, says Pittman, “all are big deals and we don’t know how any of them will ultimately sort out. They’ll all factor in to the farm bill debate. That’s why it isn’t impossible, as Congress sorts through it all, that more proposals won’t be introduced to change the farm bill extension.”

Among other things that will be discussed at the upcoming workshops are the Clean Water Act, numeric nutrient criteria, and other EPA regulations. “Much of this is playing out in the courts. We’ll be talking about how the state, the federal government and, to some extent, the Corps of Engineers all factor in this.”

Another portion of the workshops will focus on federal crop insurance. “We’ll continue to talk about what’s going on in the trenches – practical ideas, the do’s and don’ts of crop insurance. The reason that’s important is crop insurance is under permanent law and will continue, with or without, a farm bill.

In the 2012 farm bill debate, “everyone watched to see to what degree the bill would move away from the Commodity Title towards a crop insurance risk management scheme. That undercurrent is still very much in play, particularly when you consider that (Congress), despite major disagreements on Capitol Hill, mostly agreed that direct payments should be cut. It’s a new world for crop insurance, especially in the South.”

Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran was recently named ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee. How does Pittman see the year shaping up in the agriculture committees with Southern lawmakers reasserting themselves as the federal funds available for agriculture is likely to shrink?

“I think everyone is predicting there will be a lower budget baseline for agriculture. That’s one of the things that those favoring a new, five-year farm bill would cite. You know, ‘We might as well get the 2012 farm bill done. If not, there will be less to work with following an extension.’

“Well, we’ve done the extension and the writing is on the wall. The way the Congressional Budget Office scoring is done, there will be less funds available for agriculture in the new negotiations.”

As for Cochran’s move, “I think that’s extremely important. Obviously, he coming out of the South and there will now be a much louder voice for the region on the committee. … From my view, Sen. Cochran is no ordinary legislator – he carries a lot of weight in the Senate.”

Upcoming workshops include:

  • January 30: Conway County Fairgrounds in Morrilton, Ark. Farm Bill, Crop Insurance, and Related Legal Issues for Row Crop Producers.

Meeting will run from10 a.m. to noon, lunch provided at no charge. RSVPs are encouraged, not required. To RSVP, e-mail Harrison Pittman at hmpittm@uark.edu or call (479) 575-7640. Workshop provided by the National Agricultural Law Center and sponsored with generous support from Banks Law Firm, PLLC. More details here.

  • January 31: Rohwer Research Station in Rohwer, Ark. Farm Bill, Crop Insurance, and Related Legal Issues for Row Crop Producers.

Meeting will run from 10 a.m. to noon, with lunch provided at no charge. RSVPs are encouraged but not required. To RSVP, e-mail Harrison Pittman at hmpittm@uark.edu or call (479) 575-7640.

  • February 5:  Northeast Research and Extension Center in Keiser, Ark. Farm Bill, Crop Insurance, and Related Legal Issues for Row Crop Producers.

Meeting will run from10 a.m. to noon, lunch provided at no charge. RSVPs are encouraged but not required. To RSVP, e-mail Harrison Pittman at hmpittm@uark.edu or call (479) 575-7640.