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GUEBERT: 'Historic' farm bill mostly took the easy way out

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opinion Mitchell, 57301

Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

By Alan Guebert

Syndicated columnist

House Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, a fast talker by birth and trade, spared few superlatives when describing, in a telephone press conference Jan. 28, the finally finished, modestly named Agricultural Act of 2014.

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“Historic in many ways,” Lucas said of the pending law as he shared the call with his Senate counterpart, Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan.

What’s more, he continued, the three-years-in-the-making legislation was “amazing” and, in fact, “a reform bill.”

Caught up in his expansive rhetoric, Lucas finished describing the law’s bigger elements with a flourish: “This is not just a good farm bill, it’s almost a miraculous farm bill!”

Truth be told, the 950-page bill is not a near-miracle, not amazing, not very reforming and, most definitely, not historic.

It is a very late, very dense and very status quo law that further institutionalizes scale over substance and insurance over economics.

On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with either growth or insurance. Under this law, however, the two are tied tightly together; growth is all but guaranteed by heavily subsidized revenue insurance. The market is, well, in there somewhere.

How that policy will work is certain to be tested in 2014.

Right now corn is scraping along at $4 per bushel, ethanol is poised to lose some of its government-mandated demand, the export market is increasingly crowded and competitive and U.S. farmers will grow between 13.9 billion and 14.3 billion bushels of corn this year, or about 2 billion bushels more than forecasters predict will be needed.

As such, Iowa State University economist Robert Wisner estimates cash corn prices will drop from an already-thin average of $4.40 per bushel in 2013-14 to a well underwater season average of $3.75 to $3.90 in 2014-15.

The new farm law, with its higher insurable levels and fatter insurance subsidies, makes this corn-choking outcome quite likely. So likely, in fact, that the Jan. 29 Wall Street Journal editorialized that the cost of this new “shallow loss” insurance program could “balloon to $14 billion a year” if overproduction results. (Link to the editorial and all supporting documents at farmandfoodfile.com/in-the-news/.)

Implementation, however, hinges on whether the bill will clear Congress and be signed into law by the president (a near-slam dunk; the House passed it Jan. 29 on a solid, 251-166 vote) and if the rules to administer it can be done in — what — no more than 60 days?

Good luck on that second thing, says a well-placed farm bill watcher.

“The operating language of what will be allowed under this insurance program is very complicated,” the friend offers, “and writing the rules for it will be even more complicated.”

Complicated, yes. Different, no.

And that’s the biggest irony to this whole, bloody bill: there’s nothing in it that might have required the best part of three years to write or provided all the fuel to the fierce, bitter partisanship that dogged its every agonizing step.

After all, this bill never got within a mile of very difficult discussions on whether ethanol still holds a place in America’s renewable fuels future or how a farm bill might address the nation’s increasing health problems.

Moreover, Congress didn’t convene one public hearing or one Ag Committee meeting over what the U.S. and its farmers and ranchers can do to ensure sustainable food production in a world steeply challenged by expanding population, increasing climate change and tougher, narrower economics.

No, this farm bill was the easy one — despite the delays and politics — so we took the easy way out.

The hard farm bill — the one that tackles more than subsidized insurance and government-supported markets like ethanol and sugar, the one that views consumers and agbiz as equals, the one that make soil and water as important as corn and soybeans — lies ahead.

That’s the one that will be historic, reforming, amazing and a near-miracle.

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