Here's why you should care about the Farm Bill, even if you don't know a thing about farming

Milk prices, food stamps are part of the mix

Add this to your list of national issues to care about: the Farm Bill.

Despite its name, the Farm Bill isn’t just for farmers. It’s a broad piece of legislation that affects everything from the price of milk and beef to federal nutrition programs for the nation’s poor families and senior citizens.

If a Farm Bill isn’t passed by early 2014, policy watchers warn, that will impact everyone in some way.

Sen. Sherrod Brown said he’s “very optimistic” that the House and Senate will agree on a Farm Bill soon.

“It’s imperative we do this now,” the Ohio Democrat said. “One out of seven jobs in Ohio is related to food and agriculture.”

Why the Farm Bill Matters to You

See how the Farm Bill affects you.

Farm Bill legislation is supposed to be reauthorized every five years. The 2008 Farm Bill expired on Sept. 30, 2012. Instead of passing another five-year bill, though, Congress approved a one-year extension that expired this past September.

Now lawmakers are working to craft a new Farm Bill that can win enough votes to pass in both the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate. The two sides started negotiations with major differences in how farm subsidies should be structured and how much should be cut from the nation's food stamp program,  now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The House passed a version of the bill that called for $40 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next 10 years. The Senate's version called for about $4 billion in cuts over that time. Lawmakers from both chambers have been working for weeks to come up with a compromise. Brown said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday that the two sides have resolved many of their key differences.

But the down-to-the-wire nature of the talks has farmers across the nation worried.

“The biggest thing is the uncertainty,” said Craig Bieber, a South Dakota Red Angus cattle breeder. “How do you plan when you’re uncertain of where that Farm Bill’s going to be? When you have that much uncertainty, you kind of pull back, slow up production. As demand stays the same, that increases prices.”

That could result in higher prices for ground beef and lots of other food at the grocery store, too, he said.

In Ohio, if the bill is delayed too long, that could result in the elimination of agriculture jobs or reductions in employee hours, said Yvonne Lesicko, senior director of state and national policy at the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. That, in turn, would affect food processors, grocers and even restaurant operators.

"It really does have this trickle-down effect from field to fork," she said.

Lesicko said the real deadline for getting a Farm Bill passed without those negative consequences will come in the first couple weeks of January.

If a Farm Bill isn’t passed by then, the price of milk could soar to as much as $7 per gallon because of the way federal commodities laws are written.

Such a spike in milk prices would have consequences that reach far beyond the family refrigerator.

It could have “a huge impact” on schools’ food service budgets, said John Charlton, associate director of communications for the Ohio Department of Education.

That’s because “fluid milk” must be part of any school breakfast or lunch that is served as part of the federal government’s free- and reduced-price meal program, he said.

Schools wouldn't feel the impact immediately, however, since most have contracts that lock in milk prices for the length of the school year.

Failure to pass the Farm Bill by the end of this year wouldn't have an immediate impact on SNAP benefits either, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program. That's because Congress already has allocated money for the food stamp program beyond 2013. So as long as there's money to fund the program, those eligible for SNAP will continue to get the benefits, according to the USDA.

For farmers and anyone who buys dairy products, however, the sooner Congress passes a Farm Bill, the better.

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