MFU Public Radio Commentary
By Sandy Courtnage
July 24, 2012

Disaster in the Making

A drought currently gripes much of Montana and the nation, and has already harmed family farmers and ranchers.  Grain yields could be down, and grain supplies and rising prices will compound the harm to livestock and dairy producers who have few protections against rising feed costs.

Congress, it seems, failed to learn its lesson once again that it should set aside some grain during times of high production and low prices.  Now, supplies are tight and prices are rising.

The next farm bill will very likely continue to ignore this issue, leaving open the possibility of additional wild price swings that so harm livestock producers and consumers, especially those who face hunger. 

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned consumers last week that the worsening drought covering more than half of the country will lead to higher prices later this year.  He said that food prices are forecast to rise between 2.5 and 3.5 percent.  This is after a surge last year of 3.7 percent.  Vilsack warned we can expect increases in everything from hamburger and bacon to breads and cereals.  Yet the House Agriculture Committee cut the nutrition program in the Farm Bill legislation by $16 billion, when now, more than ever, this important safety net needs to be maintained.

The country is suffering through its worst drought since 1956.  Here in Montana, livestock producers are seeing reduced amounts of hay being cut, and rapidly rising prices.  The Midwest, where much of the country’s livestock feed of corn and soybeans is grown, has been hit hard.

Vilsack said he expects livestock producers will try to address future losses by reducing their herd size.  The resulting glut of meat will benefit consumers in the near term, he said, but the overall reduction could eventually hurt shoppers with higher food prices expected later this year and the first part of next year.

In addition, a large drop in crop yields will also affect processed foods by early next year. 

We join Secretary Vilsack in his frustration over Congress’ failure to pass a farm bill or enact other types of disaster legislation that would help USDA mitigate some of these expected results.  The USDA was given the authority to operate five disaster assistance programs in the 2008 farm bill, but that authority expired on September 30th of last year. 

In the meantime, Congressional leadership in Washington continues to dither and play partisan politics rather than doing the people’s work.

As we near the end of July, the U.S. House has just 15 working days until the end of September.  Yet, with sufficient political will, there is time to pass a Farm Bill before it expires.

Farmers, ranchers, consumers, rural advocates, educators and others interested in the contents of the Farm Bill may not agree on all the specifics of what should or should not be included in the bill, but more than 40 organizations representing thousands of members have agreed on the need for one.

What we have is two kinds of disasters:  the one changing our physical landscape; and the one involving the unwillingness of Congressional leadership in the House to act.

We say it’s time they get to work.  When our Congressional delegation arrives home for the August recess, you have the opportunity to let them know in person that Washington gridlock isn’t appreciated in Montana.

For the Montana Farmers Union, I’m Sandy Courtnage.  Thanks for listening.