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Farm bill expiration puts dozens of programs on hold

The expiration of the farm bill this week has left dozens of programs that promote foreign trade, conservation and specialty crop farming frozen until Congress passes a new bill -- and that could take weeks.

A joint House and Senate conference committee failed to pass a new bill by the Sunday deadline, when the 2014 farm bill expired. Lawmakers will try again to reach an agreement after the November midterm elections.

In the meantime, several of the bill's key programs -- including SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps), and commodity crop insurance -- will continue, officials say.

"Even with the expiration of the farm bill, farmers will still have the protection of the traditional farm safety net," Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement.

But many of the farm bill's smaller programs are on hold.

"It's a huge deal," said Greg Fogel, the policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "Just with the conservation programs, we're talking about close to $1.5 billion that's now on hold. That's money that's not going out to farmers and ranchers to preserve their land, or help conserve natural resources or market their products."

In all, 39 programs lost funding when the bill expired, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Other programs have money, but no authority to act, Fogel said.

These programs incentivize farmers to protect natural resources. They support farmers who grow "specialty crops," fruits, vegetables and nuts. Some deal with bioenergy and agricultural research. Others support organic farming and farm markets. Still more help military veterans get started in farming. The list goes on.

"One of the things we do is train veterans right out of the military on regenerative farming," said Doug Havemann, a military veteran who owns Mesquite Field Farm in Texas. "I am a veteran and I want to help my brothers and sisters, especially the ones with PTSD, get into agriculture. It's one of the best places for them, there's healing on farms."

There are many veterans interested in farming, Havemann said. But they need help. Many rely on programs funded by the farm bill that help them get the training they need, both in farming practices and managing the farm as a business.

"New farmers can't get loans without three years of farming experience," Havemann said. "We just started a program that offers training for military veterans that will count toward that three years experience. That program is now on hold."

Although many of these programs are likely to resume once lawmakers pass a new bill, this blackout period will have a considerable impact, said Lori Faeth, the government relations director for the Land Trust Alliance.

"One of the programs that's really important to the Land Trust Alliance is the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program," Faeth said.

That program pays farmers to place conservation easements on their properties that bar other types of developments in perpetuity. There are other similar programs to protect wetland areas, Faeth said.

"The [USDA] won't be able to put funds toward those programs now until a new farm bill is passed," she said. "This creates an uncertainty for landowners looking to put an easement on their properties."

The House and Senate passed their own versions of a farm bill in June, but the bills had a few considerable differences. A major sticking point was the in House bill, which required stricter work rule requirements for food stamp recipients. Democrats oppose those tougher rules, leaving the two sides in a stalemate.

"We've been here before," Faeth said. "Congress has failed to pass a farm bill before. But we shouldn't have to be here again. The House and the Senate are working on it, and we're really hopeful that they will not squander this opportunity and that they will get a farm bill passed this year."
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