Our current farm bill authorization expires next Monday, on September 30. What then?

Participants in a Southern SAWG conference call on Wednesday got the straight scoop from the Grassroots Advocacy staff of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). They simplified the confused Congressional action into two potential paths for action.

1.      “In an ideal situation, what would and should happen,” according to NSAC Grassroots Director, Sarah Hackney, “is that the House would ‘remarry’ the ‘farm only’ portion of their farm bill and the ‘nutrition’ portion of the bill, and then take that combined bill to conference with the Senate to reconcile the two different farm bills into one package that they would then take back to their houses, pass one more time and then send to the President.”

A conference could happen any time, as early as October, but it could be later in the calendar. Many in Congress feel that the end of the calendar year is really the date to be considered as a deadline.

If there is a conference on a farm bill, the provisions already included in the Senate and the House versions are the pieces to work with. Our objective will be to work to get the best of each bill into the conference bill. And the key decision makers will be the members appointed to the Conference Committee by each chamber. There are enough good pieces – some currently in the Senate version, some in the House version – to develop a decent piece of legislation. NSAC will help coordinate citizen action and develop talking points it that happens. Updates from NSAC are available on their blog, and action alerts are issued when the action is heavy.

But that may well not happen. The House may not really care so much about passing a bill as about making political statements about food stamps. The key decision maker in whether this happens is not the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, but House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, of Virginia.

2.      “If they don’t go to conference, we can’t get to a final bill. In that case, Congress needs to start talking seriously about another extension of the old bill to get us through until they get their act together and pass a real bill.” according to Hackney. “They aren’t willing to talk about that right now. That probably won’t happen until later.”

If Congress begins work on an extension of current legislation, that existing legislation is the starting point rather than the farm bills passed recently separately by the two chambers. When the farm bill had to be extended last January to give Congress more time to complete it, nearly all of the innovative programs developed in recent years to support small and beginning farmers and local food systems were denied funding in the farm bill extension. Working to have these “stranded programs” included in a new extension will be the big push. And it could be a difficult one. It could happen in a hurry, and the procedural path for an extension is not entirely predictable.

If farm bill action moves toward an extension, NSAC will again coordinate grassroots action. They are posting a new series of articles in their blog, titled What’s at Stake in the Farm Bill?

And for a more interactive source of information with live Q&A, Southern SAWG in initiating regular monthly policy conference calls to let Southerners keep informed and in touch with other, as well. The date/time has not yet been set, but it will be announced on Southern SAWG’s Ag Policy page, or send an email for more information.

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Jim Lukens