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Shimkus visits local farmers to assess drought damage; discusses why farm bill stalled in House

 
Christy Stewart
updated: 8/7/2012 3:17 PM

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus made a trip to visit three Southern Illinois farms Monday afternoon to see firsthand how serious the drought situation has become for his many constituents who rely on a solid crop yield to keep their families fed and their farms afloat.

Along with members of the Farm Bureau, Shimkus visited local farmer Randy Anderson, who expects to lose nearly 90 percent of his corn crop this year due to the ongoing drought conditions the Midwest has experienced this summer.

Standing in a field of pathetic-looking corn, Shimkus surveyed the damage in the area. Though he's seen the drought's impacts on other parts of the state, Shimkus said Southern Illinois has been hit the hardest by the unseasonably warm temperatures and extreme lack of precipitation that has ruined Anderson's crops this year.

"This area is the worst off," Shimkus said, "It's the epicenter."

Other farmers in the area are expecting similarly low corn and soybean yields, though the stubborn, hardy wheat crop has survived the extreme weather conditions.

Anderson said his main concern when speaking to Shimkus was showing the congressman how seriously the drought has impacted the area.

"He can go back to Congress and express to his fellow congressmen how bad the conditions are down here," he said, with a fleeting look of hope.

Anderson and Shimkus also discussed the benefits of crop insurance that is partially subsidized by the federal government. Anderson asked the congressman to make sure the subsidies don't get cut, as this experience has made him a true believer in crop insurance. Even with crop insurance, Anderson and other area farmers are getting hit hard with the financial burdens that accompany a severe drought.

Anderson described the crop insurance as "supplemental income, but not enough."

"People don't understand crop insurance doesn't provide a full solution," he said.

Just the operating costs of running a farm will be a financial burden for farmers who were that severely affected by the drought. Shimkus agreed, saying "Insurance doesn't make producers whole."

The congressman agreed the federal government should continue to partially subsidize insurance for commodity crops because it means the government shares the risk with the farmers and helps ensure a steady food supply for Americans. Government-subsidized crop insurance is sort of like a safety net for the country's food production, which is an essential component of the American economy.

The Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, which is a component of the USDA's Risk Management Agency, develops and approves premium rates for crop insurance. Private sector companies handle the actual sales and service involved with the insurance business. However, farmers who have a bad yield due to their own mistakes would not receive any money for their low yield as the crop losses must be due to problems beyond the farmer's control in order to receive a payout from the crop insurer.

Though many people seem to think government-subsidized crop insurance is a new way to reduce the risks associated with being a farmer and is sometimes criticized as a handout from the government, federal crop insurance was first authorized in the 1930s and has been tailored to function as a safety net for farmers who, through no fault of their own, have a bad crop yield and need a little help to keep their farm functioning until next year's harvest.

Unfortunately, the drought's effects will reach far beyond area cornfields. According to the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, Americans will start to see spikes in food prices due to the drought as early as this fall.

Though the USDA is doing what they can to provide some financial relief for drought-stricken farmers through low-interest loans and the opening of Conservation Reserve Program acreage for haying or grazing, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement recently that the USDA doesn't have the power to do much anymore, as President Barack Obama's 2008 farm bill disaster programs expired last year.

Before Congress finished their most recent session in Washington, D.C., there was heated debate in the House of Representatives about the 2012 farm bill. A new farm bill that lays out federal food and agriculture policy is passed about every five years and covers a broad range of policies, from conservation to crop support, from food assistance to forestry. Though the farm bill only makes up about 2-percent of federal funding according to the USDA, it has become a controversial issue because House Republicans want to cut food assistance programs from their strained budget, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which is more commonly referred to as food stamps.

Though the Senate was able to come to a compromise on their version of the farm bill months ago, progress halted in the House. The current farm bill, known as the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, will expire Sept. 30, hopefully giving the House just enough time to come to an agreement before farmer's benefits expire due to all the stalling and bickering in Congress.

For most farmers, their main concern is just getting the bill passed, especially since funds for crop insurance have already received $12 billion in budget cuts over the past five years, according to the House Committee on Agriculture.

House Republicans are demanding a $16 billion cut in the SNAP program, which, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would deprive 1.8 million Americans who are already hurting financially to lose their access to nutritious food. In addition, the House GOP's intended budget cut in the farm bill would deprive 280,000 children of a free meal at school.

House Republicans, including Shimkus, have said they believe the budget for food assistance programs should be slashed because the programs are often criticized for being highly abused. However, according to the USDA, SNAP is targeted at people who are most vulnerable to succumbing to hunger, like children, the elderly and the disabled.

About one cent of each SNAP dollar is trafficked or used fraudulently, according to the most comprehensive current study on the subject, which was performed by the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. SNAP provides food for 46 million people a month, half of whom are children, and their accuracy rate is at a historic high. In fact, Vilsack also recently said in a statement that about $.14 of every SNAP dollar goes into a farmer's pocket. On average, SNAP benefits amount to about $1.50 per person per meal, according to the USDA.

Vilsack said in the statement that they are aggressively combatting SNAP fraud and he urged Congress to act on the farm bill right away, otherwise the emergency aid for farmers authorized due to the drought will also expire Sept. 30. The drought disaster package was narrowly approved by the House just before the session ended and almost solely benefits livestock producers.

Though right now bipartisan compromise in the House may seem like an impossible dream, Shimkus said his hope is to begin a framework for a joint House-Senate bill to be called up in September. However, he didn't seem ready to back down from his position that SNAP is mainly used by people who abuse it, and people are beginning to worry the House may delay action until after the November elections.

"In any negotiation you struggle to get to middle ground," Shimkus explained.

Though hopes are high that members of the House can come to an agreement before Sept. 30, one Congressman made his feelings clear when he referred to the last-minute $383 million disaster aid bill as a "bovine bailout."

Regardless of what may happen on the House floor, farmers like Anderson, whose stress was clear on his face, are just hoping for some relief.

"My main concern is that he understands and expresses it to the other members of Congress," Anderson said.