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Farm Bill expiration worries New York's farmers

Doug Kerr

While the focus has been on the partial federal government shut down, another important piece of legislation, the federal farm bill, has also expired.

New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton said this is the third time in three years he’s seen negotiations go down to the wire and beyond on farm legislation that regulates crop subsidies, milk prices, and nutrition programs.

"It’s like déjà vu all over again," Norton said in a statement.

Norton said the short term effects are few. Nearly all federal programs for farmers are in place until the end of the calendar year. Most farmers are harvesting crops right now and will be doing so for several more weeks.  

In November and December, Norton said farmers need to start planning for their spring crops. But without knowing how, or what, the government might pay them in subsidies, he said it will be difficult to make decisions.

Dairy farmers have other worries. If there’s no decision on a new farm bill by January, it’s possible that federal milk price supports could revert back to a 1940s-era law. That could spike milk prices as high as $7 or $8 per gallon, and Norton said that would not be good for anyone.

“If milk is too high, consumers aren’t going to purchase it,” Norton said.

Norton said New York’s congressional representatives, both Democrats and Republicans, are on board with renewing the farm bill and protecting crop programs and milk prices. He said in some ways, it’s like preaching to the choir.

“We kind of got to go to the people at the church next door where their minister is not getting it and try to convert him,” Norton said.

Norton said if there’s not a permanent resolution soon, agriculture is going to stagnate - or go backwards.

The food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, is also still tied to the farm bill, though there have been attempts in Congress to separate the two policies. Because of budget cuts agreed to in 2009, all food stamp recipients will see a cut in their monthly allotment beginning in November. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said that’s likely to have an impact on the poorest New Yorkers.

“They may not be able to receive their payments too much longer based on the funding in that area,” DiNapoli said.  

Some Republicans in Congress are seeking bigger cuts in the food stamp program. But that, and all other issues, will be left undecided as the gridlock in Washington continues.

The lobby group for food pantries and soup kitchens has written a letter to Congress, calling for immediate action on a compressive farm bill that includes full food stamp funding.

“The government shutdown shows how little Congress cares about the well-being of the American people,” said Hunger Action Network’s Mark Dunlea, in a statement. “The American people need to demand that the extremists in Congress respect our democratic principles. Their policies over the last three decades have benefited the extremely wealthy, leading to the greatest income inequality in this country since right before the Great Depression.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.