Maryland farmers and conservationists are hoping they won't be left to fend for themselves while they wait for Congress to return and plow their differences into passing a federal farm bill.
Dairy farmers are particularly vulnerable to the loss of price supports that expired Sunday with the 2008 farm bill.
And riding out volatile milk prices has not gotten any easier, as those prices fail to keep up with the cost of corn that is fed to cows, said Chuck Fry, vice president of the Maryland Farm Bureau.
His 200-cow, 1,500-acre family-owned dairy in Point of Rocks stands to lose $4,000 to $5,000 that he otherwise would have expected next month, if a bill with price supports is not approved, Fry said.
“If farmers would farm like politicians politic, the country would come to a standstill,” said Fry, a fifth-generation dairy farmer.
The U.S. Senate approved a new farm bill in June that would have preserved conservation assistance and revised agriculture support programs to improve efficiency and save money. But in the contentious House of Representatives, a bill approved in committee failed to move to a floor vote before the 2008 bill expired Sunday.
According to Maryland Department of Agriculture, 497 dairy farms in the state depend on the federal safety net to withstand the market's volatility.
With the farm bill expired, MDA's marketing and agribusiness development programs expect they will not receive more than $733,000.
That estimate includes $393,000 for grants MDA has used to support the growth of local produce farmers and to address food-safety issues in fruit and vegetable production, said Mark S. Powell, MDA's marketing and agribusiness development chief. It also includes more than $211,000 to help low-income seniors buy produce at farmers markets.
Maryland's U.S. Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) and Barbara A. Mikulski (D) have written to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and National Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White urging them to support farmers in the Chesapeake watershed while they wait.
Farmers have relied on matching funds from the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative to help them pay for measures to reduce runoff into the Bay, under mandates from the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to achieve lower “total maximum daily loads.”
To reduce runoff, farmers are using cover crops, buffer strips and and manure storage enclosures.
“There are people out there waiting for payments on $200,000 manure storage that are going to be told 'sorry'” unless a new farm bill is approved, Fry said.
“Maryland does have state funding so conservation won't grind to a halt,” but it could be affected, said Lynne Hoot, who lobbies for Maryland's grain farmers and 24 conservation districts.
Still, Hoot said, when farmers don't know whether matching funds will be available or where they will come from it's hard for them to make planting decisions, including what seeds and fertilizer to order and what crop insurance to buy.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation lobbyist Doug Siglin said the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative would continue if the 2008 bill is extended. Because the Chesapeake program has been tagged as a “earmark” to be eliminated, comparable aid for Bay restoration could continue through a new regional conservation partnership program if Congress approves a new bill.
Siglin said he is pushing for no more than a two-month hiatus in the operation of the Chesapeake program.
“Farmers have said they want it wrapped up by fall because they do a lot of planning for spring planting in winter,” Siglin said.
Congress is expected to act on a farm bill after it goes back in session Nov. 13, he said.
But many farmers could finish harvesting next week, Hoot said, and that still leaves uncertainty for those farmers poised to plant wheat, barley and cover crops.
“Depending on what happens in this election, who knows what they [Congress] will do in the lame-duck session,” Hoot said.