While Arkansas attorney Trav Baxter expects Congress to enact a new farm bill before the extension of the 2008 law expires on Sept. 30, he knows there is plenty of uncertainty about what exactly it will say. Because of that, he is--and has been--urging his clients to keep a close eye on activity in Washington.
"Most of them have been in the business for so long," says Baxter, a Little Rock tax attorney whose clients include, among others, farmers, landlords and grain elevators in eastern Arkansas. "They understand everything that’s going on, they just have to make sure that they keep abreast of it so that they can do their best at getting ready for the future."
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If Congress doesn’t enact a new farm bill or pass a new extension by Sept. 30, farmers would technically be bound by the last permanent law on the books. That law was adopted in 1949.
"At that point in time, the agricultural landscape and the landscape of the U.S. was totally different," says Baxter, whose family has been farming for generations, beginning with his great-grandfather. "So what was good in 1949 is not good now."
Baxter doesn’t think that will happen. At the very least, he expects another one-year extension would be passed, though his first choice would be for a new five-year farm bill that provides greater certainty and stability for his farmer clients.
(Click to read: 10 Things Rural America Wants Washington to Know)
In addition to food stamps, the farm bill contains provisions about programs such as commodities, crop insurance, conservation and credit. Young farmers will be hesitant to enter an industry where such uncertainty exists about whether financing and certain support mechanisms will be available to them, Baxter says. As for conservation, many Conservation Reserve Programs (CRP) contracts will expire in the next 10 years, and it is likely that the acreage cap that is in place will be reduced.
If parties on both sides of the aisle realize what is really at stake here, a new law can be achieved, he says. On the table are some of the largest issues the agricultural sector has faced in decades. For example, direct payments, which have been of primary importance to Arkansas and Southern farmers where large input costs are required because many acres of crops such as corn, soybeans and rice are irrigated, will more than likely not be a part of any new law. The impact of eliminating direct payments will weigh more heavily on Southern farmers than those in the Midwest.
"However, whatever subsidized crop insurance program that they come up with as the primary safety net should take into account either yield reductions and/or price drops," Baxter says. Not everyone will get what they want in this process, but it is important for everyone to come together and get the job done.
He encourages clients to begin thinking, if they have not already, about how proposed features of any new law will affect their operation. Until a new farm bill is in place, that’s all they can do.
"I’m optimistic that the Congress can come back and do something about this," Baxter says.