As the federal government entered its first day of the shutdown this month, critics nationwide were quick to issue scathing statements on the partisan gridlock. The public's attention became instantly and intently focused on the showdown over the Affordable Care Acthow long it would last, and who would suffer as a result. But for some, Oct. 1 came with added bad news. Congress also failed to pass a new Farm Bill.
According to John Youngberg with the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, it's not the shutdown that has the state's ag industry panicked. It's the complete lack of progress toward a lasting Farm Bill. Without the measure and the safety nets it provides, he says, it's hard for producers to plan even one year down the road, let alone 10 years. And he says the impacts will spread to the consumer quickly; without a Farm Bill, milk prices could as much as double at the beginning of 2014.
"This was supposed to be done a long time ago," Youngberg says, referring to Congress' decision last year to simply extend the existing five-year Farm Bill another nine months.
Of course, the shutdown's influence on Montana agriculture can't be completely ignored. Hundreds of U.S. Department of Agriculture employees in the state have been furloughed and all 49 Farm Service Agency offices have been shuttered. The result, as Montana Farmers Union President Alan Merrill pointed out this month, is that farmers and ranchers will be unable to collect payments for USDA loans until those offices re-open. Additional services like disaster assistance and USDA conservation programs are also stalled out for the time being.
Whenever Congress settles its differences regarding the shutdown, elected officials will still have to come to an agreement on a new Farm Bill. That's proven a more-than-difficult task over the past year as Republicans have attempted to reduce or strip out provisions in the bill relating to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. And the combined failures of Congress have already taken a toll on public opinion. Youngberg says the frustration among farmers and ranchers has only gotten worse. Their faith in the House, the Senate and the Obama administration is shaken, and they're no longer blaming just one party or the other.
"They're blaming them all," Youngberg says.