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State officials decry federal inaction on farm bill


State officials in Albany have spent much of the past year and a half favorably comparing the government there to the dysfunction in Washington, D.C.

They can add inaction on the federal farm bill to their growing list.

“I think without question we’re all disappointed,” said Darrel J. Aubertine, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets and the owner of a farm in Cape Vincent. “For the state, there’s a lot riding on the farm bill.”

The current federal farm law expires at the end of September. Its replacement passed out of the House Agriculture Committee on June 11 with a 35-11 vote, but Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, hasn’t said whether it will come to the House floor for a full vote. The Senate passed its version in June, and the differences between the two bills have to be ironed out in a conference committee. That won’t happen unless the House passes its own version.

The gridlock stands in contrast to state government in Albany, legislators say. Since the beginning of 2011, the Legislature has passed, and the governor has signed, a flurry of legislation that fundamentally changes the way government works in New York. The federal government, meanwhile, can’t come to an agreement on legislation that would prevent farm programs from reverting to how they were in 1949.

“Farmers are telling me that they’re sick and tired of Washington not getting anything done,” said state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton. “They don’t care about politics.”

Mrs. Ritchie, who is the chairwoman of the state Senate Agriculture Committee, isn’t interested in getting involved in politics, either. She doesn’t criticize Mr. Boehner, as some Democrats have, for not bringing the bill up for a vote.

But like Mr. Aubertine, Mrs. Ritchie said the bill should be passed.

Mr. Aubertine said, “I think that as long as the priorities (the state) has identified are in the overall farm bill,” it should be passed.

Those priorities include a dairy program and a specialty-crop program, both of which are in the version of the bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee.

The new dairy program would provide payments to farmers if the price of milk falls a certain level below their costs, but in exchange, farmers would have to agree to limits on production to help stabilize prices. The current Milk Income Loss Contract program provides payments to dairy farmers if the price of milk falls below a certain level.

“I think that it certainly has the potential, at least, to maybe take some of the highs and lows out of the marketplace,” Mr. Aubertine said, adding that from what he’s seen, it’s probably a good idea.

Mr. Aubertine said he did have some concerns about cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. The Republican-majority House committee proposed cutting $16 billion from the program, while the Democratic-majority Senate proposed cutting $4.5 billion. Assuming the House passes its version of the bill, the two chambers would have to come up with a cut somewhere between those two figures.

Inaction on the farm bill also could hamper crop insurance subsidies, which were inadequate for the Northeast to begin with, Mr. Aubertine said. That was even before this year’s historic droughts and last year’s Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. The proposed farm bill expands crop insurance programs.

Mrs. Ritchie, who said she spoke with U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., about the farm bill, said that she supports Congress’s efforts on the dairy program and applauds its expanded subsidies for specialty crops, which would help New York’s fledgling wine industry. But the extra premiums that farmers would have to pay for crop insurance concern her, Mrs. Ritchie said.

She said that in the next month, she will convene a farm advisory board to discuss the federal farm bill’s failure to make it through Congress.

Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, who is the ranking minority member of his chamber’s Agriculture Committee, said that he’s heard a variety of responses from farmers about the benefits of the farm bill. The worst-case scenario seems to be that Washington does nothing.

“First of all, looking a little bit at the farm bill like I have, it’s not a perfect bill. But I think it’s much better than reverting to the 1949 farm bill,” Mr. Blankenbush said. “If that farm bill isn’t passed by Sept. 30, that’s what’s going to happen.”

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