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Congress votes to extend farm bill until Sept. 30

Washington — A nine-month extension of the 2008 farm bill is in the massive tax legislation passed by the House Jan. 1 to stave off the so-called fiscal cliff. This extends the deadline by which Congress has to write a five-year bill.

The House voted 257 to 167 to extend the Bush-era tax breaks and raise tax brackets on households making more than $450,000 a year, among other changes. The vote came after the Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure during a late-night session.

While all eyes were on the fiscal cliff political battle, farm groups were eagerly awaiting news on whether Congress would approve a temporary extension to the farm bill. Congress rushed to attach a farm bill fix to extend federal dairy policies through September 2013 and avoid a doubling of milk prices as dairy subsidies would have reverted to 1949 prices.

With a five-year bill in doubt, Politico reported that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) generated legislative language for a short-term fix, pushing aside Senate Agriculture Committee leaders.

"It is critical that we pass a five-year farm bill that gives farmers and ranchers the certainty they need to plan for the future," Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry, said Dec. 31 before the short-term fix was passed. "If a new farm bill doesn't pass this Congress, we'll soon hold another mark-up and just keep working until one is enacted next year."

The nine-month extension does not extend mandatory funding for all programs that expired October 2012, including the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and Clean Plant Network, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association. It does continue funding for other programs, such as the Market Access Program, specialty crop block grants, pest and disease programs and the popular school-aged fruit and vegetable snack program.

“It’s disappointing, to say the least,” said Mike Stuart, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association president and Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance co-chair. “We had worked very hard with key members in the House and Senate to craft a farm bill that was fiscally responsible and gave producers resources, such as research funding for pest and disease programs, that they need to remain competitive and to ensure a safe, healthful supply of fruits and vegetables.”

With the current congressional session expiring, a new Congress will start considering a five-year farm bill, though Mr. Guenther noted that most of the key players will be returning and that the House and Senate Agriculture Committees already approved different versions of a farm policy overhaul.

"We already have a framework from last year so it could work quickly," he said. "We're optimistic we can get a farm bill done this year, but there will be the same political roadblocks."

One difference is that it is unclear who will take the reign of ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), who gave up his seat at another committee, may challenge Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) as the top Republican. On the House side, Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) replaces Jean Schmidt (R-OH), who lost her re-election bid, as chairman of the House Nutrition & Horticulture Subcommittee with jurisdiction over specialty crop programs.

The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance will continue to communicate the importance of specialty crop programs to all lawmakers on Capitol Hill as this process moves forward in the 113th Congress, the group said in a Jan. 2 press statement.

“While we are frustrated, we look forward to working with both committees and the dozens of members of Congress who helped complete the 2012 farm bill,” said John Keeling, National Potato Council executive vice president and chief executive officer, and Alliance co-chair.

Produce businesses also should keep tabs of the next financial battle as the fiscal cliff bill pushed the sequestration deadline — the 8 percent across-the-board cuts for all government programs — to March 2013.