Sunset for 2008 farm bill will leave conservation, energy programs in dark

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 20, 2012

With three legislative days left this month and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) canceling October’s session, there is little hope the House will act on the farm bill before the election.

The House is instead likely to let the 2008 farm bill expire on Sept. 30, a prospect with implications for farmland conservation and rural energy development. Several conservation programs would be unable to enroll new participants, while most farm-bill energy programs would lose their authorizations.

Allowing a farm bill to expire is “unprecedented,” agriculture industry insiders say.

“Not having even done an extension, in which some of the expiring program authorities and expiring baselines could have been dealt with, is unprecedented,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “In the past, they have at least managed to do short-term extensions.”

While the Senate passed its farm bill in June, House Republican leaders have said they lack the votes to pass the hefty package, which would set commodity subsidies and food stamps spending for the next five years.

“We remain optimistic something can be considered, but there is nothing on the schedule at this point,” Cantor spokeswoman Rory Cooper said yesterday.

Fifty-one House members, including nine Republicans, so far have signed a discharge petition that would force a vote on the bill; 218 signatures are needed for the petition to succeed. Republicans Scott Tipton of Colorado and Renee Ellmers of North Carolina had also signed the petition Friday but withdrew their signatures.

Should the 2008 farm bill be allowed to expire on Sept. 30, the Department of Agriculture would be unable to enroll new participants in several rural conservation programs, a USDA official said yesterday.

New enrollments would end in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to idle cropland for conservation reasons. The Wetlands Reserve, Grassland Reserve and Healthy Forest Reserve programs — all farm bill easement programs — would also not be able to enroll any new participants. Authorization for $50 million worth of conservation in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed would also expire.

USDA maintains it has the authority to continue restoration work already begun under the programs, the official said. But the inability to draw new people into the programs will have an impact on the department’s overall conservation efforts, especially in large, landscape-scale efforts started in the past few years.

A multi-state initiative to protect critical habitat for the threatened sage grouse would, for example, be unable to draw on the expiring programs for funding.

As outlined in a Congressional Research Service report in July, other conservation programs would continue to have funding because of the fiscal 2012 agriculture appropriations bill, which extended several programs through 2014. The House continuing resolution passed last week would maintain funding for authorized programs at 2012 levels.

But 2012 funding levels set out in the House CR effectively ensure that another conservation program, the Conservation Stewardship Program, would also lose most of its ability to fund new enrollments, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

“At that level, there will only be money available to pay for existing contracts and not to enroll more farmers in the program,” NSAC said in a blog post last week. The organization followed up with a letter to all House members protesting the cuts to conservation.

The Senate is expected to pass the House CR this week.

‘The sky won’t fall’

Federal rural energy programs are also slated to lose their authorizations with the expiration of the farm bill.

Of seven programs added to the farm bill’s energy title in 2008, six would lose their authority. Those include the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which assists farmers with planting biofuel feedstocks, and the Biorefinery Assistance Program, which helps fund the commercialization of advanced biofuel facilities.

The Rural Energy for America Program would continue to receive $3.5 million, down from $25 million it currently receives, according to Andy Olsen, a senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law and Policy Center. REAP helps fund rural renewable energy such as solar panel installation and energy efficiency projects.

Decreased funding for REAP and lack of funding for other programs will mean lost jobs in the renewable energy sphere, Olsen said.

“What’s happening as a result of this action and inaction is that the farm bill programs are going to suffer considerable setbacks,” Olsen said. “We’re going to see a lot of momentum that’s been built up just kind of fail.

“We are now in entirely new territory,” Olsen added. “I think everybody that’s been involved in this process is shocked it’s reached this state of affairs. We are going to have harmful economic consequences.”

Without congressional action, the farm bill’s host of organic programs would also expire on Sept. 30. Those include a program that helps farmers pay the costs for certifying their products as organic and an initiative that gathers data on the organic market.

Trade groups representing the largest commodities have also warned that a lack of a farm bill would leave farmers uncertain about what to plant next year. Dairy interests would also lose their safety net program, which pays producers when U.S. milk prices go below a certain level.

On Monday, the conservative American Enterprise Institute downplayed the expiration of the farm bill, saying that farmers will continue to receive subsidies because they have already been appropriated.

The Congressional Research Service report from July also found that many commodity subsidy programs have funds through the 2012 crop year, meaning that they effectively expire in the spring of 2013. Nutrition programs that rely on annual appropriations would also continue after an expiration of the farm bill on Sept. 30.

“The short answer: The sky won’t fall. The longer and more nuanced answer: Heck no, the sky won’t fall,” AEI’s Vince Smith wrote in a blog post Friday.

AEI is among several conservative groups that have opposed the bills offered by both the House and Senate Agriculture committees. On Monday, Club for Growth urged lawmakers to reject the discharge petition making its way around the House.

“Supporters of this discharge petition are attempting to force consideration of the proposal before the end of the year. However, fiscal conservatives should be acutely aware of the flaws in this big government spending bill,” Club for Growth said.

“Among other concerns, it authorizes a whopping 60 percent increase in spending over the 2008 bill, it creates new entitlement programs that could prove extra costly to taxpayers, and it does nothing to reform the food stamp program.”