Who Needs a Federal Government and a Farm Bill? (The USDA Does)

Here's what is—and isn't—happening in the world of ag and nutrition programs.

(Photo: USDAgov/Flickr)

Oct 1, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finished a massive report outlining what it would and wouldn’t do if the government were to shut down.

The document was filed with the White House and posted to USDA.gov, where the public could access it ... until shortly after midnight last night, when that website went dark with the expiration of the deadline for Congress to pass a continuing resolution.

In the same hour that the Government began its shutdown procedures, when the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance marketplace website went live, when Congress was bickering over Obamacare defunding and delays, the farm bill expired too.

Depending on how long we go without a farm bill or a federal government, the situation could have far reaching affects, touching everything from conservation programs in rural areas to infant nutrition assistance in cities.

In terms of nutrition, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program won’t be impacted by the expiration and the shutdown in October. Despite all of the recent focus on cutting food stamps, the USDA says the program is funded through the end of October.

The same can't be said for Women, Infants and Children, a smaller nutrition assistance program that supports pregnant women and mother’s with new children, helping them to buy nutritious foods and infant formula. There will be no federal money allocated to WIC during the shutdown, and individual states currently have varying amounts of money on hand to keep the program running in the interim.

Laurie True, executive director of California WIC Association, a non-profit advocacy group, says the lack of funding is unprecedented.

“We’ve never faced a shutdown like this,” she says. “Last time there was a shutdown we had already received our appropriations so we weren’t affected.” She says WIC has been fully funded in California since 1992, with all of the money coming from the federal government.

“They’re basically going to try to cut and paste it together with chewing gum and wire,” she says of contingency funding the state has to cobble together from various accounts holding federal funds that can be earmarked for WIC—a calculus that’s being undertaken in other states too, with varying degrees of success.

True was guessing that California’s remaining WIC cash would only last a few weeks, but H.D. Palmer, the spokesman for the State Department of Finance, says there’s money in place to fund it through late November.

But the big programs administered by the USDA? Like farm subsidies? It takes more than a government shutdown to stop subsidies.

“Most programs are not—certainly not subsidies—are not impacted at all. They’re basically done automatically,” says Scott Faber, who follows farm bill issues for the Environmental Working Group. He says that direct payments and crop insurance subsidies won’t be impacted by either the shutdown or the farm bill expiration.

“There are a number of programs that are shut down because of the expiration of the farm bill, mostly conservation programs,” he adds. So no more Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Grassland Reserve Program or Healthy Forest Reserve Program for the time being.

The Milk Income Loss Contract, the piece of agriculture legislation responsible for raising fears of a Dairy Cliff at the end of last year, expired along with the farm bill. But prices didn’t spike this morning, and dairy farmers won’t be missing that safety net in the near-term. “The price that they forecast for the next few months are high enough that [MILC] wouldn’t make payments even if it was extended,” says Chris Galen, spokesman for National Milk Producers Federation, which is pushing to replace the MILC in a new farm bill. But certain programs, like price forecasting and statistical, are currently on hold, Galen notes, which could have broader implication for the dairy market if the shutdown continues for an extended period of time.

As for food safety, only 13 percent of the USDA’s 9,633 employees at its Food Safety and Inspection Service will be furloughed during the shutdown.

While many programs under the USDA’s purview haven’t been impacted by the farm bill expiration and the shutdown today, that will change the longer the situation lingers. And then there’s the nearly 100,000 people employed by the agency, many of whom will be furloughed without pay until the government goes back to work.