The crafting of the 2013 farm bill, says John Anderson, has been much like the story in Greek mythology of Sisyphus, who was cursed to spend eternity pushing a giant boulder up a big hill, only to near the top and have it roll back down again.

“It’s a somewhat apt metaphor for the current farm bill,” the American Farm Bureau Federation senior economist said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association at Mississippi State University. “How many times have we pushed this legislation right up to the top, only to see it roll down on us?

“Right now, there’s a lot of anticipation that we’ll get a bill by the end of the year. But there’s still the nagging question: Will it just roll down again?”

Anderson says he’s “fairly optimistic that we’ll get a farm bill — sometime — and that our leaders will be able to push this rock over the hill for U.S. farmers.”

There “are not huge differences” in the Senate-passed bill and the House version that doesn’t split out the nutrition title, he says.

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“The dairy provision is probably the biggest difference between the two. But, they’re mostly minor things that could be ironed out pretty quickly in conference. The two sides are about as close together as one could expect on farm bill issues. But they’re not very close together on nutrition — and that’s been the hang-up.

“On one side is the Republican position that the food stamp rolls have been flooded with recipients, that the program is rife with fraud and abuse, and that it has become a sinkhole for federal dollars. On the other side, the Democrats contend that every single dollar is needed in today’s economic environment when we’ve gone through the worst recession since the 1930s and have had record high food prices. This is where the friction has been between the two sides.”

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) “has become huge,” Anderson says. “When the farm bill titles and nutrition titles were combined in the 1973 farm bill, we were spending about the same amount on commodity programs and nutrition programs. But since then, nutrition programs have grown dramatically, and nutrition is now the biggest part of the farm bill.

“There has been a dramatic increase in spending, and we’ve now got an $80 billion a year program. It’s a big deal — by far the biggest deal in the farm bill, and the sticking point.”

There are a large number of states that are heavily dependent on SNAP benefits, Anderson notes, including most of the southern tier (with the exception of Texas), and some northern states, including Michigan. “SNAP is important to them, so it becomes a very difficult problem to work out. It’s going to be a very unique farm bill conference.”

The nutrition title is on a three-year expiration schedule, he notes, and the farm bill title is on a five-year expiration timetable. “I think there is going to be a really strong effort to keep these expiration dates staggered because there are a lot of people who want to see them split up for good.”

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The commodity title differences “will be fairly easy to reconcile” in conference, Anderson says, “but nutrition will be tough. They’ve got to try and find a dollar number for cuts to nutrition that will be small enough to hold on to a substantial number of Democrat votes, but big enough to attract a substantial number of Republican votes.

“To this point, they haven’t come up with a number that will get the magic 218 votes needed in the House to pass the legislation. Are we now close enough to the ‘nuclear option’ of permanent law going into effect to convince lawmakers to come together on a SNAP number? Hopefully, we are, and I think that’s the expectation. But whether the cut for SNAP that’s finally agreed on will be $8 billion, or $15 billion, or some other number, nobody knows.

“I think a huge part of the conference negotiation will come down to finding that magic number.”

Time rapidly running down

The calendar is becoming more an obstacle with each passing day, Anderson says. “Given the government shutdown, the wrangle over the debt limit, and other major issues, let’s face it — the farm bill is not a priority in Washington right now. Dealing with these more-immediate issues will take time, and that’s time we don’t have a lot of in what’s left of this legislative session and the end of the year when permanent law will kick in.”farm bill,permanent law,nutrition program,commodity program, government payments

What are the incentives for getting the farm bill done? “Money is always an incentive,” Anderson says. “But it’s not as big an incentive now as it used to be. Title 1 spending under the Senate bill scores out at only about $3.95 billion per year. Spreading that out across all program crop acres, it comes out to approximately $15 per acre per program crop. Once that was real money, but not now.

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“We used to talk about farm program payments being important for a farmer to get financing, and it was a big deal. But it’s not nearly as relevant today. It’s still important — but it’s not the incentive it used to be for most crops.

“The value of crops has gone up dramatically over the past five or six years and the cost of production has gone through the roof, so the level of government support relative to what crops are worth is just not as big an incentive any more.

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“I heard last week of a farmer in Indiana who bid $475 per acre cash rent for crop land and didn’t get it. Is $18 or $20 an acre of corn base going to convince his banker to finance him when he’s paying $475 an acre before he even goes into the field? I don’t think so.”

Another incentive to get the farm bill passed, Anderson says, is the overhanging threat of permanent law that would go into effect Jan. 1 if new legislation isn’t in place. “Nobody wants to see that.  Something needs to get done before then. The threat of permanent law is the ultimate hammer to get Congress to quit bickering and get something done that will give us helpful and meaningful farm programs.

“That deadline is coming pretty quickly, and that’s a pretty strong incentive for Congress to act.”