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Farm bill passes House, Senate

Feb. 5, 2014 | 0 comments

WASHINGTON, DC

After nearly seven years of debate and political dustups and setbacks along the way, it appears that a farm policy and nutrition bill will become law by the end of the week.

The House of Representatives passed the bill last week on a 251-166 vote and the Senate passed the bill Tuesday (Feb. 4.) President Obama was expected to sign the bill on Friday.

Now two years overdue, the final piece of legislation allocates nearly $1 trillion through 2018 to fund farm and nutrition programs.

Provisions of the 2008 farm bill expired in 2012 and a one-year extension of that policy expired in December of 2013.

The 949-page Agricultural Act of 2014 saves nearly $23 billion over that 10-year period, a third of which comes from the nutrition title that funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – food stamps.

The measure features the elimination of the direct payment program to farmers – itself a vestige of an earlier flawed farm program – and elimination of traditional dairy support programs and the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program in favor of a government-subsidized margin insurance program for dairy producers.

The Senate passed the measure that was worked out in a conference committee on a 68-32 vote.

Wisconsin's Senators split on the vote. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, voted for the package. Republican Ron Johnson voted against the measure, saying he opposed the spending that was approved for the food stamp program.

"Our strong agricultural tradition is a driver of economic growth and the Farm Bill is an opportunity to boost our agriculture economy, which puts over 350,000 people in Wisconsin to work," Baldwin said in a statement after the vote.

"This compromise isn't perfect but it is bipartisan legislation that makes important investments in our rural communities and will help ensure that our agriculture sector continues to fuel our state's economy."

She said she supported the bill because it included provisions to invest in agriculture and rural America including export programs for farm commodities and research into agricultural innovations as well as providing the long-term certainty farmers need.

The bipartisan legislation, she said, makes the most significant reforms to farm programs in decades, ending subsidies like direct payments, eliminating duplication, and streamlining programs for savings of more than $23 billion.

Johnson said, in a statement that the farm bill should be called the "Food Stamp Act of 2014" because food stamp spending makes up 79 percent or $756 billion of the $956 billion 10-year total spending.

He said throughout debate on the farm bill that farm programs should be separated from nutrition spending.

"Like most programs rooted in the New Deal and the Great Society, the food stamp program has experienced exponential growth. In the 1970s, when food stamps and agriculture subsidies became unfortunately linked, only 5 percent of Americans received food benefits. In 2000, approximately 6 percent, or 17 million people, were on food stamps," Johnson said.

"Participation rates vary based on economic conditions, but over the last two decades, they ranged between 6 and 10 percent of Americans. Today, 15 percent of the U.S. population (nearly 48 million people) are dependent on food stamps."

Crop programs

For cash crop producers, the bill includes a choice between a revenue program that covers both price and yield losses with county and farm level options, and a price support program, which allows the optional purchase of insurance coverage under a Supplemental Coverage Option (SCO).

The measure eliminates direct payments while maintaining decoupled farm support programs. The aim was to minimize the possibility of planting and production distortions that could trigger new challenges from the World Trade Organization.

In addition to the risk management framework, the bill also secures several other priorities of crop growers - agricultural research programs, including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) and the new Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR); export promotion done under the Foreign Market Development (FMD) and Market Access Program (MAP.)

Soybean growers were especially happy about that portion of the bill since their crop is the nation's number one farm export and those exports depend heavily on those programs.

In a statement, the National Corn Growers Association said its 40,000 members were happy to see that the linkage between the farm and nutrition programs continued. That linkage that has been essential in enacting every farm bill since 1974, the organization said.

Both corn and soybean grower associations were pleased to see that the bill consolidates 23 previous conservation programs into 13, while focusing conservation efforts on working lands.

The dairy title is a reflection of some political wrangling and years of work. Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of National Milk Producers Federation, a coalition of dairy cooperatives, said the road to a new farm bill has been "long and torturous" and said Congress "didn't wind up precisely where we wanted in terms of the dairy program, but the milk glass is more than half-full."

The new farm bill replaces three outmoded programs intended to help farmers – but that often failed in that effort, he said.

"In their place is a new, more modern, and more comprehensive margin protection program offering dairy producers a far better and more effective safety net. Because it is designed to protect against periods of both low milk prices as well as high feed costs, margin insurance is a better risk management tool."

Members of NMPF have worked tirelessly since the devastating milk margins of 2009 toward establishment of a better safety net for dairy farmers.

"The farm bill's margin protection program is a tribute to their dedication and commitment," Mulhern said.

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