The word "agriculture" was seldom mentioned in the political campaigns that just ended, but no area of public life may be more affected by the results.
With the Republicans taking control of the House, Oklahoma Representative Frank Lucas is expected to take over as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Lucas has been a supporter to direct payments, which are expected to become a major issue as the debate intensifies over the 2012 Farm Bill. At the same time, there will likely be a lot of pressure on Lucas and other Republicans to follow through on their promises of cutting federal spending. That combination should make for some very interesting debate over farm programs in the coming months.
The farm program assures a minimum price for grains, cotton and oilseeds, with the USDA making up the difference between market prices and the support price. If returns are below targets set by law, it automatically makes additional payments.
In addition, the Republican House Committee will almost certainly take whacks at the EPA, an agency Republicans usually have at the end of their gun sights because of its restrictions on agribusiness.
The faces on the House panel will also change considerably, as several Democrat members were defeated. The losers included Jim Marshall of Georgia, Steve Kagen of Wisconsin, Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, Travis Childers of Mississippi, Deborah Halvorson of Illinois, Kathleen Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania, Bobby Bright of Alabama, John Boccieri of Ohio, Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin of South Dakota and Frank Kratovil of Maryland.
On the Senate side, Blanche Lincoln’s defeat in Arkansas means there will be a new chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Her likely Democratic successor at this point is thought to be Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Sources close to the panel says Stabenow is well-liked by her colleagues and earned their respect during the last round of farm bill negotiations by bridging the interests of states with commodity crops and those with specialty fruit and vegetables.
The five-year farm bill comes up for renewal in 2012 and the new version could look much different. As part of a compromise in the 2008 farm bill, many programs are scheduled to expire in 2012, including all research and crop production for cellulosic ethanol and advanced biofuels.
The battle over changes in agricultural programs may begin as early as the lame duck session, during which Congress must decide whether to extend a 45-cent-a-gallon tax credit for ethanol blenders. Cutting the subsidy would directly affect big ethanol producers such as Archer Daniels Midland.
Unless extended, the tax credit for ethanol blenders, a 54-cent a gallon tariff on imported ethanol and a 10-cent-a-gallon small-producer tax credit all expire Dec. 31.