The U.S. Senate began consideration yesterday on a five-year farm bill, a program that has drawn criticism from both sides of the political aisle. Deficit hawks, in particular, have drawn a bead on farm subsidies as a way to reduce government spending. The current farm bill is set to expire at the end of this year, but passing a new one will prove to be difficult, says one veteran ag policy expert.
Dr. Barry Flinchbaugh, professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, says record net farm income, federal deficits at record levels and the current acrimony in Congress have created a “perfect storm,” making this an extremely difficult year to pass a farm bill.
“You have people saying we don’t need a safety net under farm income because net farm income is at record levels. They’re very short-sighted,” Flinchbaugh said during an interview with Richard Baker broadcast on the K-State Radio Network program “Perspective,” a weekly public affairs program produced by Research and Extension at Kansas State University.
Flinchbaugh warned that the good times for farmers and ranchers will not last forever, and that American politicians should consider that as they debate the farm bill.
“Agriculture – and any industry that has a lot of competition – eventually will overproduce for the demand, and eventually will get into a cost-price squeeze, and that’s starting to happen right now if you look at the cost of fuel, seed, fertilizer, etc.” A major reason current farm profits are high, he said, “is the cost of money is as low as it’s been in my lifetime.”
Flinchbaugh praised Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) for their bipartisan committee work on a Senate-version of the farm bill. But he expressed little optimism that such cooperation would continue as the bill moves forward.
“Farm bills have traditionally been bipartisan,” he said. “The difference now is that bipartisanship is basically dead in this country.”
Flinchbaugh believes the next farm bill will cut the safety net of farm programs “drastically,” and acknowledges that America can’t continue with such huge deficits.
“Our currency and economy cannot sustain these deficits.” Never one to mince his words, Flinchbaugh said, “Anybody who is not an ideological wingnut knows we have to cut spending and increase taxes and get the budget balanced. And then the economy will take off.”
That said, Flinchbaugh noted that farm bill spending represents a tiny fraction of the federal budget and at some point farmers will need a safety net. He said current high farm prices are “not a new normal. This is part of the cycle.”
“If you want long-term stability – and remember, we’re dealing with the food supply – you need some kind of a safety net under farm income.”
Flinchbaugh has long been active in the development of U.S. agricultural policy. His service on numerous national task forces, boards of directors, and advisory groups has allowed him to provide input on domestic food and agriculture policy. He served as Chairman of the Commission on 21st Century Production Agriculture authorized in the 1996 FAIR ACT.