The fiscal cliff deal that passed in the final hours of the 112th Congress contained a last-minute, nine-month extension of the 2008 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation that sets agricultural and food assistance policy. Although it’s normally renegotiated every five years, Congress failed to reach a deal before the bill expired on September 30. Pennsylvania Deputy Agriculture Secretary Jay Howes says that, despite some flaws in the legislation, passing the extension, even at the last minute, was necessary.
"The biggest advantage," says Howes, "is there would have been a lot of uncertainty if they did nothing. This way at least we know there will be a window of time where these programs will continue, and, rather than having a void, at least we know what we’re dealing with under existing law."
The extension means food stamp benefits won’t be cut, direct subsidies to large commodity crop farmers remain, and a so-called “dairy cliff,” which could have forced milk prices to double, was averted. But smaller programs for new farmers, minority farmers, organic farming research, specialty crops, and sustainable energy were all left out. Brian Snyder, President of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, calls this troubling.
"It’s a little alarming in fact to find essentially all of the programs that we have developed over the past 20-30 years are completely gone in this extension," said Snyder. "In the middle of the night legislators were asked ‘what’s really most important here’ and they chose to maintain the subsidies which almost everyone in Congress wanted to get rid of otherwise, and got rid of all of the programs designed to get farmers to move into the future with a more viable business plan."
A new Congress means the entire bill must be re-written. Secretary Howes says the two chambers were close enough that it’s not a big leap to think they’ll reach consensus.