R.D. Wolheter has gotten a stream of mailers from farm groups urging him to help
pressure Congress to pass a farm bill. But as the agricultural sector remains
strong, the grower of corn and soybeans on 3,000 acres in northeast Indiana has
let them stack up on his desk.
For decades, the farm bill has served as the main
vehicle for U.S. agriculture policy, getting renewed about every five years to
keep billions of dollars flowing to farm subsidies and rural development
programs. But lobbyists and lawmakers say the measure is drawing less
grass-roots support from the Farm Belt this time around as the House struggles
to pass the measure for a second straight year.
"I think there are a number of farmers asking what do we
need a farm bill for," said Mr. Wolheter, whose office is adorned with dozens of
hats from tractor and seed companies. "The federal debt is the real
Roger Johnson, president of the lobby group National
Farmers Union, said farmers overall have been noticeably muted compared with
past debates over renewing the farm bill. He said stronger incomes from higher
prices on commodity crops like corn and soybeans have left farmers less willing
to fight for federal support. The sector is seeing its highest returns on an
inflation-adjusted basis since the mid-1970s as corn and soybean prices are at
"There has not been the sense of crisis people might
have expected," said Bill O'Conner, a former House Agriculture Committee staff
member, who now lobbies Congress on farm issues.
In certain slices of agriculture, the bill is attracting
strong interest. Growers of vegetables, cotton, peanut and rice have pushed for
an expansion of federal subsidies for crop insurance. In the dairy sector, a
fight has erupted between dairy farmers and dairy-product producers over
government price supports.
The safety net for farmers is changing from automatic
payments to farmers regardless of their economic circumstances, to crop
insurance and other programs. Both the House and Senate support eliminating $5
billion a year in the direct payments to farmers, and would expand federal
subsidies toward the cost of crop insurance.
As farmers see less for the agriculture sector in the
bill, they have become more frustrated with the growth of food aid for the poor.
The farm bill combines support for agriculture with food
stamps—a formula since the 1970s that mobilized rural advocates of agriculture
and urban backers of food stamps. But assistance for low-income people has
doubled since the 2008 economic downturn and some Republicans are now
questioning the link between the two programs.
And so farmers in this corner of Indiana are questioning
the composition of the bill like never before. "There is more concern about what
they're doing in other areas than the agricultural end of it," said Stanley
Sickafoose, who farms 6,500 acres of corn and soybeans.
U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, who represents the region and farms 4,000 acres with
his father and brothers, voted against the farm bill and found support from
farmers as he returned home for the Fourth of July break. The Indiana Republican
is pushing in Congress to split off the nutrition programs from the core farm
"What's worked in the past isn't working right now. Farm
policy is going in one direction. Food-stamp policy is going in the other," said
Mr. Stutzman last week as he opened a barn door on the family farm to display
several hulking tractors.
He has found interest from House Republican leaders, who
in recent days have been trying to rally support among the GOP rank and file for
the dual approach in the wake of last month's defeat of the bigger bill on the
House floor. It remains unclear whether they will be able to persuade enough
Republicans to support this strategy, and if they can't, what their fallback
plan would be. The House failed to take up the bill last year as it expired and
a yearlong extension of existing policies expires on Sept. 30.
Splitting the legislation in the House would complicate
negotiations over a final bill in the Senate, where the Democratic leadership in
control of the chamber is staunchly opposed to a breakup.
Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents a district in rural
Minnesota and is the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, has warned
that if the farm bill is split, no House Democrats would vote for it, and it
would die in negotiations with the Senate anyway. He says he fears that without
a farm bill, growers would become more exposed to a sustained decline in
Farmers "are very quick to forget the bad times," Mr.
Peterson said. "Right now they're not too worried about this."