Farm Bill closer to passage

Farm Bill, coming at you!. Photo by NRDC, courtesy USDA. Some rights reserved.

Farm Bill, coming at you!. Photo by NRDC, courtesy USDA. Some rights reserved.

UPDATE, 3:00pm – The New York Farm Bureau calls for swift passage of the new Farm Bill, calling it "a sensible bill that balances savings with an appropriate safety net for farmers and consumers alike."

If you're starving for details on the dairy margin insurance program, get it from the horse's mouth. The dairy section of the conference report starts on page 95.

Well, two years later, it's here. Congressional negotiators introduced a new five year, $100 billion per year Farm Bill last night. And the leaders of the bipartisan effort said in the Washington Post it improves U.S. agricultural policy while cutting overall spending:

Supporters said the measure will slash billions of dollars and help support 16 million jobs in the agriculture industry — making it the only bipartisan, money-saving jobs bill to pass Congress in recent years.

"We never lost sight of the goal; we never wavered in our commitment to enacting a five-year, comprehensive farm bill," House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) said Monday night as he asked colleagues for support.

“This bill proves that by working across party lines, we can reform programs to save taxpayer money while strengthening efforts to grow our economy," Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said in a statement.

If it passes, which is still a substantial "if", this farm bill's legacy will be the end of direct payments to farmers, a program widely considered too often a giveaway to some of the nation's wealthiest and a waste of taxpayer money. Instead, the core support for farmers will be subsidized crop insurance.

But according to the Associated Press, efforts to cap payouts and payments for the subsidies that do still exist were cut from the final bill – strong indications that the big money agriculture lobby wielded considerable influence. In an editorial, the Lincoln, Nebraska Journal Star bemoans that influence:

Using the Environmental Working Group’s database, the New York Post pointed out this year that 374 residents of New York City’s posh Upper East Side, including David Rockefeller, are receiving subsidies.

The EWG told The New York Times that farm subsidies went to 50 billionaires from 1995 to 2012.

As the Center for Rural Affairs has pointed out, turning over tax money to wealthy landowners hurts the family farmer and makes it more difficult for beginning farmers.

It’s unconscionable that conference committee members would contemplate removing the subsidy caps from the farm bill at the same time they are planning to cut the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Program.

Cuts to food stamps were significantly reduced from the House's $8 billion a year to $800 million a year, but still more than the Senate's call for just a $400 million a year cut. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has argued strenuously for zero cuts to food stamps, says the cuts amount to a loss of $90 a month for struggling families. "That's about the cost of a week of groceries," Gillibrand told NCPR last week in Watertown. "That is too harsh."

Apparently, there was wheeling and dealing up until the last minute in how to structure dairy's insurance program – specifically how to prevent farms from making too much milk knowing insurance will cover their risk. Vermont Senator was "alarmed", according to Politico, that the largest farms might not have enough disincentive to overproduce. Politico has this blow-by-blow, which, if you can make heads or tails of it, you're more astute than I am at this point:

Leahy first proposed a $1 million net payment cap over the weekend, but this met resistance apparently from all the top negotiators. For a period Monday, a second idea requiring a new “third tier” of premium rates for milk production over 40 million pounds or for herds of 2,000 cows seemed to be acceptable. But this was finally replaced by adjustments between what will be two tiers: one for herds of 200 cows and below and one for those above.

The final premium rates Monday effectively increase the disparity between the two, especially for the highest-end margin coverage a farmer can buy — between $7 and $8 per hundred weight of milk.

We'll have more details about what's new, old, and different in the Farm Bill as we sort through it.

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