The failure by a U.S. Senate and House conference committee to agree on a final version of a five-year farm bill leaves dozens of programs in limbo.
Initiatives such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund and federal matching funds for statewide agricultural groups included in the 2014 farm bill expired Oct. 1. House Republicans voted to go home for the midterm elections and come back into session in November, leaving a standoff between Senate and House farm bill conferees over divisive issues such as work requirements for food stamp recipients, crop insurance and commodities.
Food stamps (known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) and crop insurance will continue during the election hiatus because each has a permanent authorization. Policymakers and advocacy groups are working to make sure other programs carry on in stopgap fashion until after the House returns and the conference committee once again seeks consensus on a bill that can be sent to President Donald Trump.
Farmers "are not really wringing their hands yet," said Kevin Paap, the Blue Earth County soybean and corn farmer who is president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau. The delay has added uncertainty to planting decisions that must be made soon, Paap noted, but "we've got time to get this done in the lame-duck session after the November elections."
Right now, Paap said, most Minnesota farmers are concentrating on harvesting. "We're focused on getting the crop out while the weather is right," he said. However, if disagreements persist into December, he thinks there will be reason to worry.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said passage of the farm bill is needed to extend security to farmers amid trade issues that have seen tariffs threaten agricultural exports from Minnesota and other states.
Whether the impact of the trade war on America's agricultural heartland is enough to lead conferees to a compromise on the food stamp work requirement is unclear. Senate negotiators are clearly against increasing the work requirements, while House Republicans made it a centerpiece of their version of the farm bill.
That impasse and a couple of others have left several programs in danger of running out of funds and some defaulting to antiquated legislation that could cost taxpayers dearly, according to the Farm Bill Law Enterprise, a consortium specializing in agricultural law.
Advocacy groups began sounding alarms this week.
The Minnesota Conservation Federation, a group of hunters, fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts, sent a letter to the state's congressional delegation calling for permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year.
"It's unfortunate that a program with long-standing bipartisan support wasn't able to get reauthorization before the September 30 deadline," federation director Jason Dinsmore said in a statement. "It is our hope that this will be a top priority for members of Congress in the coming weeks."
Other groups and politicians cited concerns about funding for commodity price supports and recruitment of young people to farming.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a farm bill conference committee member, criticized the House decision to adjourn without a bill. But he believes negotiators can still find common ground by year's end.
"I'll continue to advocate for beginning and veteran farmers, Minnesota consumers, our most vulnerable neighbors, and critical conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program until we get a new farm bill across the finish line," Walz said in a statement.
Democratic Sen. Tina Smith is not a conference committee member, but she sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee. In a statement Smith noted that "many programs continue to work for farmers through the end of this year, which is good. But other initiatives that Minnesotans care about — like conservation initiatives, expanding export markets, and programs for beginning farmers — will become difficult to access and could run out of resources soon." She has co-sponsored a measure to permanently authorize and fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
In fields around the state, those harvesting crops continue to count on a spirit of cooperation by leaders who hold farmers' fates in their hands.
"We still have confidence in the agriculture committee's leadership," Paap said. "They have worked as a team in the past. There has been some partisanship, but the principals want to get this done."