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Immediate Future Uncertain for Farmers

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(Duration: 5:22)

The agriculture industry has had a rocky year, highlighted by a vicious drought and oppressive Midwestern heat. Farmers in Illinois and elsewhere are trying to make the best of the harvest, while bracing for what lies ahead. However, their immediate future is clouded by gridlock in Washington.

Things are changing in agriculture. The fields may look the same. Silos and grain elevators still dot the landscape, but the culture of farming is not what it once was.

Kathleen Merrigan has had two stints at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"When I was younger and I would say to people, I'd go to a party and everyone has their gin and tonic or whatever and people would say, ‘What do you do for work?’ Merrigan said. “I'd say I work in agriculture and I'd be left in the corner alone with my drink."

Merrigan helped craft organic labeling rules a decade ago, then left to head up the Ag program at Tufts University before returning to serve as the number two person at USDA.

"Now, I go to a party and I say I work in agriculture and I'm the belle of the ball,” she said. “What's really exciting now is that people want to talk about where food comes from, how it was produced, who produced it in ways that I haven't seen in my adult lifetime."

Merrigan said there is an openness and curiosity about agriculture that she calls healthy. That is not a word USDA officials are using to describe this year's corn crop. 

Corn and Soybean Farmer Doug Wilson is based in rural Livingston County. He has been farming for 32 years, and he farms about 540 acres in the area.

Wilson said his corn crop shows some side effects of the drought effects, but thanks to rain this summer that was missed in many other places, his yield should be strong.

Wilson said what is on his mind right now is the federal Farm Bill, which Congress hasn’t passed. The measure is the government's spending and planning blueprint for agriculture.  Politicians negotiate it in multi-year increments to help farmers plan ahead.

The challenges of passing the Farm Bill are no different than others hung up by partisan gridlock in Washington.

The Farm Bill has not reached the President's desk. One version of the measure cleared the Senate, but critics say it did not go far enough to help farmers. Others say it helps too much, and should be trimmed down.

One thing farmers, like Wilson, seem willing to accept in the bill is an end to direct payments--the often criticized farm subsidies. However, Wilson draws the line at cuts to crop insurance.

"We're clients to the insurance companies with some federal backing and it's something that has worked for us, “Wilson said. “You can elect what percentage of your crop you're going to cover. That's probably one of the underlying issues, but the uncertainty overall of 'what is our policy going to be?' is something that makes people hesitate as they start planning for next year already."

Doug Wilson points out even if Congress and the president enact a Farm Bill, many other variables not limited to agriculture affect farmers--international relations, estate planning, and transportation to name a few.

Uncertainty in these areas only adds to farmer frustration.

What ultimately happens may lie within the latest complex answer to an age-old simple question: What is government's role in a free-market economy?

Frank Lucas (R-Okla), the chair of the House Ag Committee, said that question only leads to others.

"I serve with some members who say Uncle Sam shouldn't be involved in anything,” Lucas said. “So, do we do away with Pell Grants to help beginning college students get into college? Do we do away with federal flood insurance that helps people in flood-prone areas? Do we step away from incentives that provide air and ground transportation? You know, you gotta look at the whole package."

Critics say farm subsidies and other elements of government policy have often led to over-production. Lucas said having a plentiful food supply is really a beauty of the industry. He compares it to military funding.

"We pay companies to keep factory assembly lines warm in the hopes that we will never use them.,” he said. “But in case of war, we need the resources, we need the production. I don't ever want to get to the point where, because of bad federal policy, we don't have enough food to meet the needs of the American consumer and the consumers around the world. We're always going to have a little extra. But I'd rather have a little extra, than not enough."

Taking care of global food supplies is at the heart of the "Feed the Future" initiative announced by President Barack Obama at last spring's G8 Summit. He said there are economic, security and moral imperatives.

"Because of smart investments in nutrition and agriculture and safety nets, millions of people in Kenya and Ethiopia did not need emergency aid in the recent drought,” Obama said. “But when tens of thousands of children die from the agony of starvation, as in Somalia, that sends us a message we still got a lot of work to do."

President Obama's plan requires government support the world over, and private dollars. Forty five major international corporations and African companies are kicking in $3 billion for the initiative.

Obama said one goal is to make Africa, which he said boasts the largest amount of unused arable land on earth, a major food producer and exporter.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan said the U.S. can help achieve those.

"All of our skills, exporting those to other countries makes sense,” Merrigan said. “As we have a growing middle class around the country, American producers are going to do well. So, we don't want to get in the way of progress for these countries because what's good for them will be good for us."

Merrigan said many factors control the world's future food availability, including international politics, decreasing water supplies, production challenges and distribution problems. She said a major player in tackling some of those issues is technology.