Agriculture Energy Coalition (AGEC)

Agriculture: Rural energy efforts run low on fuel as farm bill expires

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Chuck Bushman Farm flipped the switch earlier this year on 360 solar panels spread across its chicken barn in Castalia, Iowa.

Each panel is capable of generating 240 kilowatts of power for the supplier of organic milk and chickens. Some days, the solar panels are able to produce more power than what is needed, and the farm banks it for when the demand for electricity exceeds what the panels provide. The farm also has smart meters for the chicken coop and the rest of its buildings to monitor where electricity demand is highest.

The Department of Agriculture provided the funding for the project through its Rural Energy for America Program, whose mission is to help farmers and ranchers install renewable energy technologies and improve energy efficiency. Since its creation in 2002, the program has given rural landowners grants and loans for about 7,000 projects in all 50 states.

But USDA`s ability to carry out projects like the installation of solar panels was left to dangle last night with the expiration of the farm bill. Without a new bill that includes mandatory funding, conservationists warn, REAP and other programs will run out of fuel and USDA won`t meet rural landowners` demand for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

"There`s a great degree of uncertainty around the program, and word is getting out that funds are getting cut, but USDA still had demand in excess of what the funding would supply," Andy Olsen, a senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said late last week. "What we really need is for Congress to pass a new farm bill."

After months of wrangling, mostly on the House side, the sun set on the farm bill at midnight with little fanfare, dwarfed by the larger government shutdown.

This is the second time in two years that Congress has allowed the farm bill to expire. Last year, U.S. farm policy lapsed for three months before Congress early this year tacked a nine-month farm bill extension into larger legislation to avoid the "fiscal cliff."

Farm bill caught in the weeds

There have been 10 full or partial iterations of the 2012 (now 2013) farm bill since fall 2011:

  • The version hatched by Senate and House ag leaders for the joint supercommittee on deficit reduction that died when the committee died.
  • The Senate`s version last year that passed the chamber.
  • The House Agriculture Committee`s version last year that passed the committee but never made it to the floor.
  • House leaders` short-term farm bill extension that was pulled almost as soon as it was floated.
  • The farm bill extension proposal late last fall from Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) that was never even considered.
  • The nine-month farm bill extension that was passed in the fiscal cliff legislation.
  • The 2013 full Senate farm bill that passed the chamber.
  • The 2013 full House farm bill that did not pass the chamber.
  • The House farm-only bill that passed.
  • The House food stamps bill that passed.

Bonus: The drought plan that the House did pass last year the day before the August recess that wasn`t a farm bill but that included livestock disaster assistance provisions to try to appease the agriculture community.

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