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Unknowns remain with farm bill

Some language of new law still being written

Published: Tuesday, April 29, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, April 29, 2014 8:51 a.m. CDT

Farmers finally saw a new $1 trillion farm bill signed into law on Feb. 7. Almost 3 years of legislative negotiations had mired producers in uncertainty as they tried to plan for the unknown.

While the new 5-year bill brings a certain degree of stability, the uncertainty hasn’t been eliminated. Because the bill was passed so close to planting season, many questions remain about how the new programs and initiatives will be implemented.

The timing of the farm bill has several ag agencies deviating from business as usual.

“They are still working on the farm bill, so we just want to put people in a position to utilize a program if it becomes available,” said Jerry Quinton, executive director at the Lee County Farm Service Agency.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the past 20 years, has merged several other programs from other federal agencies into the FSA. The agency is tasked with carrying out farm programs and regulations at the local level.

Signups for federal ag programs have been delayed because of the late passage of the farm bill.

“This is the first time in the 27 years I’ve been here where we’ve had so little office traffic,” Quinton said. “The lion’s share of farm bill programs we handle are still being written. We have to write policies on what Congress gives us.”

The farm bill implementation process began in mid-February. Even after the new programs and policies are put in writing for the agency, more work remains. There are handbooks to be published and software to be developed.

Some programs have been fast-tracked, Quinton said. A pressing need for disaster relief has pushed some of those to the forefront.

“Livestock has been the first priority after the blizzards,” Quinton said.

An early-October blizzard killed up to 100,000 cattle in South Dakota last fall. The absence of a new farm bill made it even more difficult for ranchers to deal with their losses.

Locally, the Farm Service Agency is getting the word out that claims can still be filed for damage to crops planted in the fall, especially winter wheat.

In northern Illinois, the final reporting date for fall-seeded wheat had been Dec. 15. Normally, fall seeded crops reported after the deadline would be subject to a late filing fee plus a field inspection to verify the crop damage. But because the 2014 farm bill wasn’t passed until February of this year, the Department of Agriculture waived the fee.

Although not a great deal of acreage is devoted to those crops here, the harsh winter winter has destroyed much of what had been planted, FSA says.

“This past winter was very hard on the winter wheat and rye in the area,” Quinton said. “In Lee County, anything planted in the fall was totally exposed.”

Lee County farmer Jim Schielein lost all of his wheat to winter kill. He said the ensuing process went pretty smoothly for him.

“I had insured my wheat, so I met with the insurance company and recorded it,” Schielein said. “It all seemed pretty seamless.”

Resolving the unknowns from the farm bill will become more pressing after spring crops are in the ground, Schielein said.

“We’re still uncertain on how regulations are going to fall,” Schielein said. “We have to do our homework and make some decisions by fall.”

The weather has farmers falling behind as they wait for the ground temperature probes to give them better news.

“My probe said 46 degrees yesterday,” Schielein said. “Our anxiety now comes from looking at the calendar and knowing very little has been planted here.”

Crops planted after May 10 start to lose some of their potential, and after May 20, prospects drop off rapidly, Schielein said. For crop insurance purposes, June 10 is considered late planting.

While different farm bills tend to have a different focus, this one is clearly about risk management, Schielein said.

“This one is different in that there are no direct subsidies,” Schielein said. “This is all about making decisions on individual risk factors, and the government realized there’s no cookie-cutter answer.”

FSA offices

For more information about fall seeded crops and other FSA programs, call the Lee County FSA office in Amboy at 815-857-3621, ext. 2; the Whiteside County FSA office in Morrison at 815-772-2124, ext. 2; or visit the national FSA website at www.fsa.usda.gov.

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