BUCKLEY — Frank Lipinski farmed in northern Michigan land since 1952.
Lipinski, 79, watched booms and busts blow through the region. He’s survived too little rain, too much rain and saw the nation’s agricultural landscape transform from one dominated by small family farms to big agri-business.
But in six decades of farming Lipinski never saw anything like the brewing storm in Washington, D.C. over the nation’s Farm Bill, and the failure of Congress to pass the $1 trillion legislation.
“It’s unbelievable, the dysfunction that’s taking place in Washington, D.C. right now,” Lipinski said. “The Farm Bill was always an automatic deal for decades and decades. An automatic piece of legislation.
“Our biggest problem with not having a Farm Bill is all the uncertainty that goes along with it,” said Lipinski, who operates the Tralane Seed Farm in Buckley.
“It’s a big deal because farming is expensive,” he said. “It requires a lot of credit, and the banks and farmers are hanging out there not knowing what policy is going to be or what direction commodity prices might go. If you are a bank, do you want to loan $1 million to get next spring’s crop planted when no one has any idea what farm policy is going to look like?”
Prepare for sticker shock
Congress is now on its third try at passing a Farm Bill, with a final deadline arriving in January. Farmers are the ones most concerned, but several experts told the Record-Eagle that consumers and the poor also will suffer if legislation isn’t approved. Milk could jump to $6 to $8 a gallon. A pound of cheese could be $12, a loaf of bread $6.
“It gives me goose bumps,” said shopper Jessica Haas, of Lake Ann, as she retrieved a gallon of milk from a cooler at Oryana Natural Foods Market last week. “That’s quite a jump. People can’t spend that much. They’ve got kids and bills to pay.”
Inflated prices for commodities like milk, bread and butter might seem far-fetched, but they aren’t. Ken Nobis is president of the Michigan Milk Producers Association. He said a failure to pass the Farm Bill would cause food prices to spike dramatically because food policy will revert back to standards in place in the 1940s.
“It would result in that hyper-high price for a gallon of milk in retail outlets,” Nobis said. “It would not just impact milk, either, but all other commodities ... corn and wheat.”
Food assistance to the poor also is on the chopping block. A big obstacle to getting the Farm Bill passed is the debate over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as food stamps. The House of Representatives wants to cut the program by as much as $40 billion while the Senate wants to cut just $4 billion.
A failure to pass the Farm Bill also would impact local program work at the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center in Leelanau County. In jeopardy: a comprehensive research initiative to examine how to improve pollination of specialty crops like cherries and apples, station director Nikki Rothwell said.
“It’s a five-year project that began last year in 2012,” Rothwell said. “We have all these sites put out, we’ve seeded them for bee habitats ... and now there’s no funding for it.”
Rothwell said she’s thankful that Michigan State University and the fruit growing industry committed to helping finance the program in the short-term, at a reduced rate, until the Farm Bill passes.
Benishek, Stabenow optimistic
Despite all the doom, gloom and fear surrounding the Farm Bill, northern Michigan’s federal legislators are optimistic a Farm Bill deal will pass sometime in January. They ought to know -- U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, chairs the Senate Commitee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry and Rep. Dan Benishek, Republican, sits on the House’s Commitee on Agriculture.
“The farmers want a Farm Bill,” Benishek said. “Let’s face it -- agriculture is a big industry in the state with more than 50,000 farms in Michigan. They provide a lot of jobs for Michigan families and they need to have some certainty as to what the policy is going to be.”
Stabenow said recent crop insurance gains for fruit growers in northern Michigan will be protected even if the Farm Bill goes nowhere.
She suspects legislation eventually will pass, given what’s at stake.
“Nobody is more frustrated than I am,” Stabenow said. “I’m living and breathing this every day. My top Christmas present will be getting this Farm Bill done.”