Southeast Arkansas farmers are waiting on a new farm bill. Before investing big bucks, it would be nice to have a road map of what to expect from Washington.

Southeast Arkansas farmers are waiting on a new farm bill. Before investing big bucks, it would be nice to have a road map of what to expect from Washington.

While waiting on Congress to approve legislation, agriculture producers can assume spending cuts trump farm subsidies for many lawmakers.

Supporting farm subsidies was once a given for members of Congress representing rural areas and seeking re-election. This election year, it’s not that simple.

Billions of dollars are in the debate as many rural voters demand less government. While lawmakers are writing the next five-year farm bill, those same producers and lobbyists for agribusinesses are preparing for the worst-case scenario. They have reasons for their concerns: Agriculture knows less at this point about what will be in the final legislative package than in the past. Add to the forecasting woes is the simple fact that most of the legislation will be written by the Budget Committee, not the Agriculture Committee.

Farm bills in the past have provided a “safety net” for farmers and consumers when it comes to stable pricing of farm products.

And, over the years, common sense has kicked in to balance the end result. One bill might favor row crop farmers, for example, and the next would bend toward livestock producers. The legislation had a tendency to balance the costs involved in producing grain for consumers and grain for consumption by cattle, swine and poultry.

Don’t expect quick action on the legislation. No one doubts that the Farm Bill of 2012 will include less money than the legislation signed into law in 2008 and 2002.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who chair the Senate and House agriculture committees, have indicated they support eliminating some subsidies. Last fall, they negotiated a farm bill that cut $23 billion from agriculture and nutrition programs, with hopes of adding it to the doomed budget-cutting supercommittee’s package.

When the supercommittee failed to reach an accord, so did any hopes for a speedy farm bill.

This year, they are starting over. However, direct payments, a subsidy paid without regard to crop price or crop yield and costing taxpayers about $5 billion a year, are still a target as the Senate Agriculture Committee. President Obama’s budget proposal called for a $32 billion cut in farm programs, including direct payments.

Farm bills in 2002 and 2008 also were driven by rural election-year politics, with lawmakers seeking favor with farm interests in their home states and inserting their priorities into the bills. As a result, subsidies went basically untouched.

Market conditions are different in 2012. The farm business is booming with strong commodity prices. When you are trying to pass farm legislation with projections down the road, the current market can paint too rosy a picture that could be derailed before the ink is dry on the legislation.

Fewer lawmakers with rural backgrounds are now serving on the agriculture committees. That background is institutional memory lost to the legislative process, with lobbyists picking up the slack in the decision-making process.

Traditional farm issues and the impact of farm policy seem to have gotten lost in the process.

There is a possibility that the current Farm Bill will be extended into 2013, but the issues won’t go away and a solution may be harder to reach a year down the road.

Farmers will still need a strong safety net to protect our sources of food and fiber in times when market prices are low or crop yield is poor. One alternative exists: Rather than plant a crop, farmers can invest their money in casinos in Tunica or Las Vegas where the odds are known.