House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas said he will file legislation to extend farm bill programs through January.

Rep. Lucas, R-Okla., said in a Dec. 10 statement that he was confident the new five-year farm bill can be ready in January. The 2008 farm bill expired at the end of September, and USDA is required to revert its commodity programs to 1938 and 1949 farm bill laws. Those old programs, if implemented, would result in much higher milk prices after the first of the year.

“I will file legislation to extend the current farm bill through January to allow us to finish our work without the threat that permanent law will be implemented,” according to Lucas’ statement. “Having this option on the table is the responsible thing to do in light of our tight deadline.”

Lucas said there are still some issues that must be resolved.

Negotiators will likely work on the bill during the Christmas break and have a 30-day extension to reach an agreement, said John Keeling, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based National Potato Council. Lawmakers are also waiting on numbers from the Congressional Budget Office on how much the legislation will cost and budget savings it will bring, he said.

The danger in the extension is that critics will have more time to raise objections to the legislation, Keeling said.

A major point of contention is proposed cuts to the food stamp program. The Senate version of the farm bill cut less than $5 billion from the program, while the House of Representatives endorsed cuts of $40 billion over ten years. Keeling said there are reports that $8 billion in cuts over 10 years may be a compromise for the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“The SNAP (issue) is the biggest single obstacle to getting it done,” Keeling said.

Finding enough votes in the House for the farm bill is the biggest challenge, because Republicans may balk at the reduced level of cuts and Democrats don’t want to see any food stamp cuts, Keeling said.

For specialty crop programs, Keeling said industry advocates are optimistic about the inclusion of specialty crop block grants, the specialty crop research initiative and other programs.

“Getting this thing to the finish line is the critical thing for us,” he said.

A couple of unresolved issues for specialty crops are whether the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program will be opened up to processed fruits and vegetables and whether compliance with conservation rules will be required under for specialty crop growers with federal crop insurance, said Kam Quarles, director of legislative affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based McDermott Will & Emery law firm.

“Conservation compliance is a very significant issue,” he said.

Quarles said there is a lack of data about how new requirements would affect specialty crop production in the U.S. Compliance with the regulations would mandate that fruit and vegetable growers who buy crop insurance put in place a certified conservation plan with the USDA, Quarles said.

Industry advocates said another issue that is part of the farm bill negotiation is the push to allow potatoes to be a part of the Women, Infant and Children fruit and vegetable voucher program.