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Farmers and ranchers across this country expected to start the year with a new farm bill in place. This is an important piece of legislation to many people. It sets agricultural policy for the next five years.
When House and Senate negotiators were working feverishly over the weekend to come to a fiscal cliff deal, word leaked that the Agriculture Committees had finally come to an agreement on new farm legislation. But the larger fiscal cliff deal merely extended parts of a farm bill that expired in October.
Jeremy Bernfeld of member station KCUR in Kansas City reports that farmers are frustrated.
JEREMY BERNFELD, BYLINE: It takes months for most crops to grow, and farmers are used to waiting. But many farmers and ranchers say they've waited too long for a comprehensive farm bill and are fed up with Congress.
ALFRED BRANDT: Not surprised, but disappointed that they couldn't come together on something, and just leaving a lot of people kind of out there on a limb, not knowing what's going on.
BERNFELD: That's Alfred Brandt, who runs a dairy farm near Linn, Missouri. He milks about 150 cows on his pastoral farm just off a gravel road.
The farm bill is important to farmers like Brandt, because it sets all kinds of subsidy payments, disaster relief programs and conservation agendas. Farmers can't control much about their business, so they crave certainty about the aspects they can control. Without knowing what agriculture policy will look like next year, it's tough for them to make best-practice planting decisions. It's hard for ranchers and dairy producers to decide just how big their herds should be.
The farm bill is usually authorized for five years. But since Congress couldn't pass a new bill, it merely extended parts of the previous farm bill until the end of September, picking and choosing which programs to fund. That's nine more months of short-term policy, and nine more months of uncertainty for farmers like Brandt.
BRANDT: We're just kind of left out here on a lurch. We don't really know which we way we can turn. So we'd just like to know whether it's good or bad for us, but the uncertainty of it is the part that we don't like.
BERNFELD: Extending the farm bill also locks in another round of controversial direct payments. That means billions in government subsidies for some grain, cotton and soybean farmers, subsidies that even many of them don't think are necessary anymore.
And the extension doesn't include funding for disaster aid programs and programs designed to encourage young people to get back in to farming. It also doesn't fully fund programs that help support local farmers markets and agricultural research provisions.
Ferd Heofner with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says merely extending the current farm bill hurts small, local farmers.
FERD HEOFNER: The takeaway is that we're going backwards in time, getting rid of the programs that I think the general public and the consumers are demanding. Those are the same programs that are getting terminated.
BERNFELD: The extension hit dairy producers especially hard. Many say the safety net for them is outdated, and the new farm bill would have created a program to protect them against higher feed costs.
Jerry Kozak heads the National Milk Producers Federation. He says last year's drought significantly raised the cost of feed, and that's chasing some dairy farmers out of business.
JERRY KOZAK: Whether it's dairy farming or producing Energizer batteries, no one can produce a product at a loss.
BERNFELD: Kozak says dairy farmers looking for a new safety net are out of luck, at least until the extension expires at the end of September.
KOZAK: Of course we're frustrated. And in the interim, as dairy farm families exit the business while we're still debating it, it clearly is going to fall on the heads of those who failed to bring this up for a vote.
BERNFELD: So even farmers - long-known for their patience - are growing weary of waiting on Congress.
For NPR News, I'm Jeremy Bernfeld.
GREENE: And Jeremy's story came to us from Harvest Public Media. That's a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.