By GREG HLADKY, email@example.com
10:43 AM EST, December 12, 2013
It's a classic congressional cluster flop. You've got partisan political clashes; regional conflicts; huge subsidies; lobbying cash; industries fractured by disputes; House and Senate rivalries; government gridlock.
And it's all about food. And money. And saving farmland. And helping the environment.
The innocent-sounding label for this particular legislative maelstrom is "The Farm Bill." Virtually no one knows what's going to emerge from the confusion or who's going to end up being shafted.
It could be Connecticut's dairy farmers, or the urban poor, or our state's small towns looking for sewer money, or farmers trying to avoid having their land go under the bulldozer to build more McMansions.
Connecticut's shrinking cadre of milk producers - fewer than 150 at last count - is right now sitting in the bleachers, trying to figure out if they're going to survive. There have been dire (but almost certainly overblown) headlines warning of $7-a-gallon milk if Congress fails to act by Jan. 1.
The federal Food Stamp program is also at risk, caught in a tug-of-war between conservative Republicans who want $40 billion in more cuts and liberal Democrats who think the poor are suffering enough. Our state's rural towns could be cut off from federal aid for sewer projects. Money for farmland preservation in Connecticut could get chopped.
"It's been very difficult to follow," Ben Freund says of the wild twists and turns of the Farm Bill debate.
Freund's family has been working its 800-acre farm in East Canaan for more than six decades and they now have about 300 milk cows. He's a knowledgeable, thoughtful man, often recommended as a go-to guy for explanations of what's happening in the dairy industry.
Except that on this topic, he's at something of a loss, reluctant to even describe the arcane disputes between farmers and processors, giant western dairies and our small-scale New England milk producers.
"Dairy policy has always been confusing," Freund says, and now the dairy industry itself is divided over federal policy. "It's very difficult to define both sides of the question," he adds with an apologetic note.
The Democratic U.S. Senate has one version of a farm bill. The Republican U.S. House has another. Last reports had congressional leaders holed up in closed-door sessions looking for a middle ground or possibly just a way to postpone a deadline for action so we don't fall over that Jan. 1st "Dairy Cliff."
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat representing eastern Connecticut who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, says he has no clue what's going down in those secretive meetings. The only things Courtney was hearing at the start of this week were "speculation and rumor-mongering."
"Nothing's normal in this Congress," Courtney shrugs.
A major part of the problem is that there are so many different competing interests at war over various sections of this incredibly broad legislation. Millions have been spent by Big Agriculture and Big Food on lobbyists to influence Congress.
In the "old days" (of a few years ago), liberal urban votes for a congressional farm bill were lured in with funding for Food Stamps for the poor. Lawmakers from usually conservative agricultural regions got money they wanted for farm subsidies and protection for farmers from swings in the prices for food they produced.
Now, Republican conservatives want to slash Food Stamps, and liberal Democrats are balking. The issue of how to replace farm subsidies – where farmers and corporations were raking in big cash for not growing stuff – has created deep divisions in sectors as different as sugar and milk.
The old subsidy system for dairy farmers went out in 2008 and there have been temporary fixes passed by Congress since then.
The issue of what comes next has pitted smaller dairy farmers (like ours in Connecticut and New England) against the giant milk-producing farms out West. Allied with the big dairy folks are the processors, the industrial types that bottle most of our milk and make cheese and butter and related dairy products.
Connecticut dairy farmers are backing a Senate plan to create an "insurance" system to provide federal payments if feed prices jump too high, and to get farmers to cut back production if milk prices plunge. The processors and giant farm operations claim that would mean higher consumer costs. The other side insists that wouldn't happen long term.
Courtney describes that dairy battle as "the Northeast against the world," and says the plan supported by Connecticut farm folks is an attempt to "level the playing field."
In our little state, a dairy farm with 1,000 cows is considered big. In places like the Midwest or California, there are vast ranches where 10,000 or sometimes 20,000 animals are being milked.
According to Courtney, the kind of federal policy favored by the giants of the dairy industry would "put almost impossible pressure" on small New England farmers.
The one milk-related disaster most Connecticut experts agree won't be happening is falling off that "Dairy Cliff," a move that would send milk prices through the roof. The only way that could happen is if Congress does nothing and a post-World War II federal policy to shore up milk prices is automatically revived, triggering shortages of dairy products and higher prices for consumers..
"It's not going to happen," Freund says. Courtney doesn't think it's in the cards either. He believes the "political downside of letting that happen" is so massive that even this Congress, where doing nothing is always a first option, will take some kind of action.
The Farm Bill craziness has also produced fights between sugar growers and candy makers, and battles over importation of olive oil that Courtney says had legislators from places like California and New York facing off in table-pounding confrontations.
There are a whole mess of other Food Bill unknowns hanging over Connecticut in this season of uncertainty.
Those include what happens to federal funding for things like "rural development," a program that Courtney notes has paid for sewer improvements in places like Stafford, Bolton and Putnam.
"Even the definition of 'rural' is a highly contentious issue," says Courtney. Some congressional types from the wide-open spaces of Western states insist that you can't be truly rural if your town is anywhere close to an urban center, which by their way of calculating would exclude all of Connecticut.
Henry Talmage, of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, says another question mark is what happens to federal agricultural dollars for farmland preservation and environmental conservation. This state used to get about $9 million a year for those programs, he says.
Some of that money was helping Connecticut's program to save its rapidly vanishing farmland by paying landowners to give up their development rights. Talmage warns that some farmers have been putting off decisions about joining the program because they're unsure if there will be money available to actually pay them.
Even Connecticut's organic farmers are looking warily at what's going on in Congress, says Bill Deusing. He's executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
Organic farms in this state tend to be small, boutique operations that don't get involved with the sorts of multi-million-dollar federal subsidies that have gone to large-scale crop farmers. But there is one Farm Bill provision that in the past helped farmers with costs of federal organic certification. Even that little item could get savaged out by congressional spending hawks, Duesing warns.
For you foodies out there worried about the dairy debate and what might happen to organic milk, take a deep breath. We've only got one lonely certified-organic dairy farm in Connecticut, and it's not really involved in this mess.
Richard Segalla, whose Riverside Organic Farm in Canaan has about 110 milkers, says he hasn't been paying much attention to the congressional uproar over agricultural policy. That's because organic milk prices aren't set by federal policy, they're negotiated between producers and processors.
Those prices are so much higher than regular, non-organic milk largely because it costs so much more for Segalla and others in his business to feed their cows only organic grain, grass and hay. Segalla says he's forking out about $750 a ton for organic grain.
That's more than double what non-organic dairy farms pay for their feed, according to Ed Maltby, of the North East Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. One reason non-organic grain is so cheap is that almost all of it comes out of the heavily subsidized American system of industrial agricultural, which is dedicated to production of corn and other major crops and uses genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds.
Regular dairy farmers buy GMO grains "mostly because they have no choice," explains Maltby. Since Europe and many other U.S. trading partners have banned America's GMO products, virtually all the non-genetically modified grain gets exported.
A new study out this week suggests organic milk has more health benefits because it has more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than regular milk. Whether that kind of news creates more demand for organic milk, and more organic dairies in this state, remains to be seen.
Whatever their persuasion, Connecticut farmers have plenty of reasons to be nervous about what may be cooking in the weird cauldron of politics and agricultural policy now bubbling down in Congress.
"What will happen in the end?" says Maltby. "Nobody is quite sure."