On June 21, the Senate passed its version of the 2012 farm bill by a vote of 64-35. That ran contrary to what a lot of people expected. Even those who were optimistic that it might get passed doubted it would happen before the House released its farm bill because that has never happened, not in recent memory.
Joe Outlaw, co-director of the Agriculture and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M University, is as wired into the processes and provisions of the new farm bill as anybody. He's been asked to speak to both the House and Senate about what he thinks should and should not be in the new bill. He describes the experience as akin to herding cats.
"They ask me for objective answers and then do what they want anyway," he said.
What the Senate wanted was to pass a bill with $23 billion in cuts over 10 years that does away with direct payments and increases crop insurance. The bill has created some conflict between various commodity groups, drawn primarily along geographic lines. Most of the votes against the bill came from Southern senators. In Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchison voted for the bill while John Cornyn voted against it.
"Most people would say the South has had an undue influence on past farm bills," Outlaw said. "The new Senate bill does not reflect Southern crop issues."
He said he expects the House bill to be friendlier to Southern growers.
The Senate bill does away with direct payments, countercyclical payments and the unpopular ACRE program and replaces them with the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) program. The bill decreases the safety net for farmers and increases crop insurance, Outlaw said. For Outlaw, the biggest problem with ARC is that it locks in a profit for some growers and a loss for others because it bases benefits on five-year Olympic yields.
"Based on that formula, soybean growers are guaranteed to make money," Outlaw told a recent crops clinic. "If your last five years have been good, the Senate bill is good for you. If your last five years haven't been so sporty, it's not so good for you."
The Food and Agriculture Research Center, which works with the Food and Agriculture Center in studying the impact of farm legislation on farmers, recently released a graph that shows rice with an almost 80 percent reduction in benefits. Sorghum loses more than 70 percent, followed by peanuts and wheat at about 60 percent.
Though this year marks the first time Outlaw can remember the Senate passing its version of a farm bill before the House, he acknowledges that the House is facing a different set of hurdles than the ones the Senate faced.
"In the House, you have people on the agriculture committee who will not vote for the Senate bill," he said. "I think there's a legitimate question if they can get a farm bill out of that body or even out of their own committee. I think opposition to the bill will be more fierce in the House."
Outlaw said the direct payments are going away and they won't be coming back, not in this farm bill.
"The only way they would continue past this year is if there is an extension of the current farm bill while the new one is being hammered out," he said. "Otherwise, those are gone."
The House took up the bill on July 11. If a new farm bill can't be passed and signed by President Obama by Sept. 30, the current programs will be extended until a new bill is passed.
"If the Tea Party members of the House insist on large cuts out of the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) it could hold everything up," Outlaw said. "It's hard to get anything done if you go to Congress with no goal other than cutting everything you can.
"In the end, I expect a 2013 farm bill. Even with the Senate moving quickly on their bill, I still think it will be next year before we see a new farm bill."