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Warning of financial jeopardy without a new farm bill, Montana agricultural groups are flying to Washington to urge House Republican leaders to act by month’s end, though it may be too late.

Congress returns to Washington in just over a week to work eight days before adjourning to campaign before the November election. More than 40 farm groups from across the nation will arrive on Sept. 12 to push for passage of a new farm bill to replace the current roster of farm programs, which are scheduled to expire Sept. 30.

Those expiring programs are crucial to securing operating loans ahead of planting winter wheat this fall, say producers angered by House inaction on the 2012 farm bill. In addition, ranchers devastated by wildfire and drought are lobbying for assistance with burned-up pastures and skyrocketing feed costs.

The Senate passed its farm bill in June on a bipartisan vote and the House Agriculture Committee has finished its farm bill, but the House leaders declined to bring the farm bill to a vote before the monthlong August recess. With just over a week of work remaining in the congressional year a vote seems unlikely. U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., has written to Republican and Democratic leaders in the House asking for a vote.

“We met with Sam Sweeney, Rehberg’s Ag man in D.C., and asked who we would need to go after and he said it’s (House Speaker John) Boehner. Boehner won’t schedule it for a vote,” said Alan Merrill, Montana Farmers Union president.

In July, the Republican House Speaker recognized the House Agriculture Committee for doing “good work” on the five-year $500 million farm bill but faulted other programs in the bill, including a dairy farming risk management insurance program that Boehner described as “Soviet-style.” That was on July 12, the day House Agriculture finalized its farm bill work. The farm bill will have been in limbo for two months when the House reconvenes Sept. 10.

Merrill said he’s worried about young farm families applying for operating loans during the next two weeks without the certainty of a new farm bill. Operating loans of six figures or larger aren’t uncommon in the farming world, and bankers don’t lend that kind of money unless farmers can produce a risk management plan, something assuring that the loan gets repaid even in the event of crop failure.

Federally subsidized crop insurance has been the foundation of farm risk management plans for decades. And those crop insurance programs are written into each farm bill. Farmers planting winter wheat in October will need operating loans in the next couple of weeks.

“We’re going to have to have seeds in the ground in October,” said John Youngberg of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. “The timing is way off, and I don’t think anybody is happy about this. This is beyond partisan bickering. It’s time for someone to suck it up and get things done.”

The bickering is completely partisan. In the House, rural Republicans generally support the farm bill, while urban Republicans aligned with the Tea Party view the bill as farm welfare, which they oppose. With elections just over 60 days away, some conservatives worry about losing their jobs if they support the $500 billion farm bill.

Another issue is food stamps. Roughly 80 percent of the money in the Senate-passed farm bill goes to nutrition programs like food stamps for the children, the poor and the elderly. House conservatives would like to see deep cuts to food stamp programs, which sets up a battle with Senate Democrats. The Senate cut $4 billion from food stamps, but the House Agriculture Committee proposed $16 billion. That fight is not likely to be settled in eight days.

Farm groups hope that a temporary funding bill can be passed to keep programs going if the farm bill fails. In July, House Republicans passed a bill restoring disaster program funding for ranchers, but that proposal didn’t include crop insurance. The Senate refused to take up the stopgap bill, insisting that a full farm bill, with crop insurance, was needed.

Still on break, lawmakers should be getting an earful from farmers back home, said Lola Raska, of the Montana Grain Growers.

“We’re hoping that they’re hearing from the farmers in their own state,” Raska said. “They didn’t want to bring up anything controversial before November.”

But farm groups are promising there will be controversy through November if the lawmakers put political jobs ahead of farm jobs.


Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.