Legislators, area grower make mark on Farm Bill
By Amy Bickel - The Hutchinson News -
WASHINGTON - As Kansas' own Dwight D. Eisenhower once quipped, farming looks easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the cornfield.
More than 1,400 miles from his own fields that he will plant to corn this spring, Jarvis Garetson traveled from parched southwest Kansas to Washington, D.C., in hopes of painting a clearer picture to lawmakers preparing to put their own pencils to the latest farm policy.
The story he told wasn't pretty.
Sporting a suit and tie March 15, Garetson testified his crops last year received only 4.85 inches of rain in an 18-month span. His dryland wheat made 5 bushels to the acre. Dryland milo yielded zero. The family chopped half their irrigated corn for silage, which is unprecedented in these parts where the Ogallala Aquifer lies beneath his fields.
And, he stressed, in the perils of drought and the scorching summer heat, federal crop insurance saved his family's Haskell County farm.
"Federal crop insurance is paramount to the success and longevity of our farm," Garetson told Sen. Pat Roberts and his fellow Senate Agriculture Committee members during a farm bill hearing in March. "Without it, we would be having a farm sale this spring. With it, we are preparing to plant again."
Eighty years of farm bills
The farm bill is being shaped in the halls of the Senate's Hart Building.
Roberts' office is on the first floor, just below where his Senate agriculture committee meets. Short of time and money, he and other lawmakers are working to make the biggest cuts in agriculture in a generation as commodity prices climb along with farm income.
The 2008 farm legislation sunsets Sept. 30. Without a new law or extension, a 1949 law would go into effect - a law that would limit planting and raise subsidies by billions of dollars.
Not that such an instance would ever happen. Moreover, Roberts, the ag committee's ranking member, has been helping shape farm policy for three decades. He fashioned the "Freedom to Farm" bill in 1996 - one of the biggest changes to farm legislation since the New Deal era. It was designed to end provisions dictating what farmers should plant and how much. It also established direct payments - something farmers get whether prices are high or low.
However, even veterans like Roberts say tackling the latest farm bill amid an urban Congress and a burgeoning federal deficit won't be easy. U.S. farm policy is a mammoth - covering not just a commodity title but also food stamps, conservation programs and research.
About every five years, Congress works on a farm bill - just as it has done for the past eight decades. It started with Franklin Roosevelt, who during the Great Depression signed the first farm bill into law in 1933.
The top two priorities for Roosevelt's administration were to save the family farm and help provide a safety net for rural America as crop prices plummeted.
As then-Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace put it, the New Deal legislation was "a temporary solution to deal with an emergency."
Yet the emergency entitlement never ended. Nearly 80 years later - though tinkered with over the years and receiving heat from critics - the farm bill program remains in place.
Amid a budget crisis, Congress began working on the latest measure - one that falls in a far different era than the New Deal period, or even a decade ago.
These days, most Americans are far removed from the land. Unlike the 1930s when 25 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms, less than 2 percent do so today.
That's reflected in the farm bill, which isn't just a farm bill anymore.
When the current measure was enacted in 2008, Congress estimated the cost at $284 billion over five years, with 67 percent going to nutrition programs, 15 percent to commodity programs, 9 percent to conservation and 8 percent to crop insurance, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Expand crop insurance
Lawmakers are making big changes to the 2012 version.
The era of direct payments is more than likely over, signaling the end of a crop subsidy Roberts helped enact 15 years ago.
But even Roberts admitted "old isn't necessarily good."
"We are trying to reform" the farm bill, Roberts said before the Senate hearing in March, adding that some of the difficulty is working with commodity groups' various opinions of how a farm bill should be tailored.
Some, including peanut and cotton growers, advocate for the old system of direct payments, along with higher target prices. Meanwhile, a few major U.S. farm groups are calling for a new revenue-based insurance system.
Others, such as Garetson, a Kansas Farm Bureau member, want a stronger crop insurance program, even if other farm supports dry up.
"It was the most devastating crop year in history," Garetson said on his farm. "We have to keep crop insurance."
However, some are even targeting crop insurance for cuts. In the past five years, the federal government slashed nearly $12 billion from the federal crop insurance program, and the White House has proposed cutting another $8 billion.
Roberts told the committee that if they doubted the importance of crop insurance, just look at what it provided to farmers like Garetson in the past year.
Kansas farmers claimed more than $1 billion in indemnity payments for their failed crops in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency.
"We had the worst drought since the dust bowl in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas in 2011," Roberts said. "We had massive flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and hurricanes devastated the northeast. Yet months after all of this ruin, producers are tuning up their equipment. ... These farmers are able to put the seed in the ground because they managed their risk and protected their operations from the destruction of Mother Nature through the purchase of crop insurance."
But can Congress write a farm bill this year?
"I sure hope so," Roberts said before the hearing.
His committee anticipates a markup by Memorial Day.
Meanwhile, the House Agriculture Committee is having four hearings around the country, said Big First District Republican Tim Huelskamp. The April 20 hearing in Dodge City is the final one in preparation of drafting a House version of the legislation.
Even Huelskamp has concerns.
"When you're an urban Congress with about 12 farmers, it's hard," he said.
"Will we make the deadline? It's going to be tight."
Kansas Farm Bureau President Steve Baccus also questions whether Congress can get anything passed by the current farm bill's expiration date - especially since it is an election year.
With a budget crunch, 2013 might not be any better, he added.
His group's main goal is to protect crop insurance.
"I don't care if you are a small farmer or a big farmer," he said, "farming is a capital intensive business. Seed costs have gone through the roof. It takes a lot of money to operate."
Garetson said he and his wife, Amber, raise five boys in rural Haskell County on the farm his great-grandfather homesteaded in 1902.
He wants the farm to go to the fifth generation, he said, likening crop insurance to car insurance.
"We just can't run the risk not to carry it," he said.
IF YOU GO
What: House Agriculture Committee hearing on the 2012 Farm Bill When: 9 a.m. April 20 Where: Magouirk Conference Center, 4100 W. Comanche, Dodge City.