Deadline for passage of Farm Bill looms on the horizon

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Fabyan - posted Mon., Aug. 26, 2013
(L to r) Bryan Hurlburt, Jonathan Eddy, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, Zack Clark and Henry Talmage at New Boston Beef. Photo by D. Coffey.
(L to r) Bryan Hurlburt, Jonathan Eddy, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, Zack Clark and Henry Talmage at New Boston Beef. Photo by D. Coffey.

Sept. 30 is looming larger on the horizon for area farmers than it might appear. Only nine legislative days stand between now and the deadline for passage of the Farm Bill. The huge bill, with hundreds of amendments, links support for farmers with supports for nutrition programs countrywide. It has pit Democrat against Republican in one of the most partisan struggles in years. And U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney (D-2) isn't confident that the parties can find common ground before the bill expires.

Courtney was at New Boston Beef in Fabyan on Aug. 23. It was the first stop on his tour of eastern Connecticut farms. Courtney has been a vocal supporter of the state's farmers since being selected to serve on the House Agricultural Committee. He's the first Connecticut representative to serve on the committee in more than 100 years, and the state's farmers are happy to have him in their corner. But they know the struggles he faces in the House, not only with fellow legislators, but with large producers from the Midwest and West Coast.

“The reality is, Connecticut and the northeast are such small pieces of the puzzle,” said Connecticut Farm Bureau Executive Director Henry Talmage. The CFB bills itself as the “voice of Connecticut agriculture.” But Talmage recognizes that most of the Farm Bill is focused around crops in the Midwest. “And they are huge,” he said.

A case in point is Jonathan Eddy's New Boston Beef. Business revolves around 38 head of Simmenthal cattle. It's small potatoes compared to farms in the Midwest, where thousands of cattle are raised for slaughter. A Simmenthal weighs in at about 1,400 pounds, but Eddy estimates there is a 30-percent loss when the animal is harvested. His production pales in comparison to the 4.16 billion pounds of commercial red meat production in July 2013 reported by the USDA.

The same economies of scale apply to all northeastern U.S. farmers, whatever their crop. “That issue of scale rears its ugly head in agriculture all the time,” said Talmage. The move from cash subsidies to an insurance-based model was generally acceptable to the CFB. “There are adjustments to the program on the dairy side that we see as long term benefits,” he said. “What's complicated is trying to fit one program into all the nation.”

“In many respects the Farm Bill is an historic bill because it's getting rid of cash subsidies,” Courtney said. “Not only would it cut the deficit by about $25 billion, it would make some real reforms and give farmers a horizon in terms of USDA programs.”

An amendment called the Dairy Security Act would provide some subsidy for the premiums for the small farmers, Courtney said. “Unfortunately, that was one of the amendments that the house stripped from their bill,” he said. Apparently milk processors didn't want it because it had provisions for supply management. “Prices couldn't crash with overproduction in times when things were getting a little tight,” Courtney said. “That was a critical provision for the little guy.”

The Farm Bill also has provisions for farm and ranch land preservation. Funds through the Environmental Quality Improvement Project (EQIP) allow farmers to make upgrades in capital investments that have a business as well as environmental benefit. Eddy received EQIP funds that covered 90 percent of the costs of a barn structure for his herd. He's blocked off a manure area, put in fencing and $8,000 worth of drainage. He needs to elevate the east side of a storage roof. He'll start putting up temporary fences in the next few weeks so his animals can graze new ground. Eddy is locked into a 10-year contract. Should he change his business plans, it could mean paying a penalty on the money he's already received.

The Farm Bill delay puts uncertainty into the marketplace, according to Talmage. And that uncertainty leaves farmers in a bind. When and if it passes, farmers will know how much money is going to be available in Connecticut and the rules they'll have to play by. “People can start planning around it,” he said. “Right now, nobody knows.”

Courtney isn't confident a bill will pass by the September deadline. “We might be forced to do an extension,” he said, “but no one really wants that.” And an extension wouldn't cover all the amendments tacked onto the bill.

Talmage will follow the progress of the House bill closely. “We're always hopeful,” he said. “The good news is that we have representation.”

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