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Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012 06:33 pm

Ag experts: Farm bill delay endangers food supply

Congress’ inaction affects farmers, low-income families

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As Congress wrestles over an agriculture bill that will set policy for the next five years, local farmers and ag experts worry the delay could endanger a variety of important programs when the current bill expires at the end of September.

The Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate passed a so-called “Farm Bill” in June, while the Republican-controlled U.S. House sits on a separate version of the bill. First created in response to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the Farm Bill contains numerous programs, including crop insurance, biofuels, foreign trade agreements, land conservation and food aid for low-income families.

“This really does affect all of us,” says Wes King, policy director for the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. “Most average consumers don’t think about the Farm Bill, but they should. It has a big impact on their lives.”

King says the conservation programs included in the Farm Bill are especially crucial in times of drought because they help prevent soil erosion.

To the Stewardship Alliance and other groups, the Farm Bill is more appropriately called a “food bill” because it affects anyone who buys, sells or grows food. Without a renewed Farm Bill, the law will sunset on Sept. 30 and revert to an outdated 1949 version.

The main controversy on the Farm Bill hinges on cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The Senate’s bill cuts about $4.5 billion from SNAP, while the House’s bill cuts $16 billion. Both versions also call for changes to save money in other areas and introduce more accountability. The House Committee on Agriculture passed a version of the Farm Bill in July, but the House leadership hasn’t called it for a vote and isn’t expected to do so before the Nov. 6 general election.

The delay prompted the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Illinois Farm Bureau and other central Illinois agriculture groups to send advocates to Washington, D.C., urging passage of the bill.

 Jim Birge, manager of the Sangamon County Farm Bureau, says the bill is crucial for several reasons. He says federal backing of crop insurance helps mitigate environmental and economic forces that would otherwise devastate farm businesses. Birge says crop insurance keeps prices stable and lessens reliance on food supplies from other countries. “It means food prices don’t fluctuate wildly, and our food is grown and monitored in our own nation, not dependent on other nations,” he says. “If there’s one thing you don’t want to lose control of, it’s your food supply.”

Birge points out that federal crop insurance doesn’t pay every claim. A farmer’s insurance company pays claims first, and a reinsurer picks up whatever the primary insurer doesn’t cover. Once both companies have paid the full amount under the farmer’s policy, the federal government reimburses the farmer for the remaining losses. Birge says about 80 percent of Illinois farmers have crop insurance.

Without a renewed Farm Bill, he says, farmers across the U.S. face the possibility of extremely high crop insurance premiums.

Allen Entwistle, a central Illinois farmer of 50 years, says he doubts private insurers would even offer crop insurance if the federal government didn’t back it.

Entwistle, who farms in and around Sangamon County, says public perception of crop insurance is sometimes wrong.

“The big thing the general public needs to understand is that the farmer does pay for their insurance,” Entwistle says.  When a farmer suffers a massive crop failure, he says the insured farmer “won’t make money at it, but they’ll at least be able to cover their costs.”

The delay of the farm bill also means local farmers aren’t investing in new equipment or facilities, he says.

“Ag has been a bright spot in the world economy, even in the recession,” Entwistle says. “If you slow the farm economy down, you slow down job creation.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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