WASHINGTON | John Gilbert’s 770-acre livestock farm in Hardin County falls within the congressional district of Rep. Steve King. That’s not something Gilbert is happy about.
Gilbert, 64, holds tea party Republicans such as King responsible for the federal government shutdown, which has suspended many U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that he and other farmers rely on.
“I’ve been farming for enough years that I realized long ago that the most valuable thing I have is my signature,” said Gilbert who runs the Iowa Falls farm with his brother.
Gilbert compared the huge federal budget to the contracts he signs as a business owner.
“We’re agreeing to pay for what we wanted. We’re not reneging down the line. Some of the more extreme tea party members, those are the folks who don’t understand when you make a commitment.”
Gilbert participates in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers who leave some land unfarmed as a way to combat soil erosion. Checks to farmers were to be sent out starting this month, but until the shutdown ends no money will be distributed for conservation, according to the National Farmers Union.
Rep. King sympathized with Iowans affected by the shutdown, but predicted the impact would be limited.
“This is a partial shutdown. It is temporary. There’s no model in history that tells us it is going to last through the month of October,” he said.
King, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, said he expected conservation checks to go out this month as planned when government reopens.
However, he is in no rush to compromise with Democrats.
“Most farmers I know don’t want to live under Obamacare,” he said.
King and many other House Republicans insist a continuing resolution to fund the government include a delay in implementation of the Affordable Care Act. President Barack Obama and other Democrats have thus far refused to negotiate.
On top of the shutdown, the long-term future of the Conservation Reserve and other USDA programs is in doubt. Congress also failed to complete action on the comprehensive farm bill before its October 1 deadline for renewal. That left many farmers— in the midst of harvest season— unsure of how to plan for next year. The farm bill lays out a five-year plan to determine subsidies and other agricultural programs available to farmers through the federal government.
“It’s a compound problem,” said Chandler Goule, vice president of governmental relations for the National Farmers Union. “Even when the government does open back up, these programs no longer exist.”
The National Farmers Union has pressed Congress to pass a farm bill even during the shutdown.
“Congress has been deemed essential,” Goule said. “So they’re still operating.”
Goule said until a farm bill is passed and USDA resumes normal operations, farmers are left under a cloud of uncertainty, which hampers their ability to plan for 2014.
One of the hurdles to getting a farm legislation passed has been contention between House Republicans and Senate Democrats regarding funding for food assistance. The House passed a bill that calls for $39 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps.
In comparison, the Senate-approved bill calls for $4 billion in cuts. A compromise will have to be worked out in joint conference. Obama has promised to veto a bill that cuts food assistance to the extent of the House Bill.
“That’s the nature of divided government,” said Tamara Hinton, a spokeswoman for the House Agriculture Committee. “That doesn’t mean consensus is impossible.”
The Senate appointed conferees on October 2 to work toward a compromise bill between the two legislative bodies. Hinton said there were open lines of communication between the two chambers and that the House should appoint its conferees soon.
For his part, King said he wants legislation passed as soon as possible. “I want a five-year farm bill,” he said. “Not because it provides certainty -- because you never have that in farming -- but because it provides predictability.”
In addition to the low-income Americans served by food stamps, there are economic benefits for farmers, according to Dale Moore, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Foundation. “Some component of that ends up back on the farm or ranch as a commodity,” Moore said.
Many farmers take pride in their connection to the program as food producers. John Gilbert, for example, is anxious to see the bill pass but objects to cuts in the nutrition programs.
“That’s just not poor government. That’s downright mean. I don’t think there’s any justification for it,” said Gilbert, a member of the National Farmers Union. “If that’s where they’re trying to save money, they’re looking in the wrong hole.”
The Farm Bureau’s Moore said that the delay on the farm bill is a frustration for farmers, but the closing of the federal government poses immediate financial threats. For example, the latest crop report by USDA is supposed to be published Friday and would be used by the industry to determine prices, he said. If the shutdown continues through that date, then the report won’t come out.
“That’s affecting your bottom line,” Moore said. “Your ability to do your job is hamstrung because of the shutdown.”
Farmers are no strangers to waiting.
“We have to have a certain amount of faith to be in this business,” Gilbert said. “We have to have faith that sooner or later reason will prevail. Hopefully it’s before there’s any real damage.”
“We usually go to bed at night assuming the sun’s going to come up in the morning.”
See FARMERS, page A9
Lack of a new farm bill
adds to farmers' uncertainty