The Senate Agriculture Committee’s 2013 Farm Bill is in the midst of a critical test this week on the Senate floor, where the $955 billion measure is expected to draw opposition from lawmakers who wanted more money taken from farm subsidies and less from the nation’s food stamp program.
However, the Senate’s bill has stirred much less regional conflict than did the one passed last year. That bill drew criticism from Southern senators and agriculture producers as being a “one-size-fits-all” measure that relied too heavily on crop insurance favored by Midwest and Northern farmers and less on the price-supports desired by their Dixie counterparts.
Meanwhile, President Obama has expressed concern that the $4 billion that the S. 954, the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013, takes from food stamps would hurt families that have not yet recovered from the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many of those families are in Mississippi,where new recipients have grown to a level in which one out of every four households rely on food stamps, the Mississippi Department of Human Services said a year ago.
Obama’s budget had called for keeping funding intact for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the official name for the food stamp program. Some Democratic senators have pledged to seek reinstatement of the food stamp funds.
The Obama budget for 2014 called for $37.8 billion in cuts to farm subsidies and conservation programs over 10 years, The Hill newspaper reported Monday. The Senate farm bill has $24.4 billion in total cuts, $1 billion more than last year’s bill, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Congress has until the end of September to pass a Farm Bill extension or the country’s farm support policies revert to provisions in place in 1949, when Congress enacted the first Farm Bill.
The Senate passed a bill last year but the House failed to reconcile it with its own version, thus keeping renewal of the farm legislation from getting a vote.
This year’s Senate bill passed out of the Ag Committee earlier this month with unanimous approval.
Two key players in getting that bipartisan result – Agriculture Committee Chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi – were in Cleveland May 17 for the Delta Council’s annual meeting. Both expressed the importance of the bill to Mississippi’s farm economy as well as the national economy, though they acknowledged their bill had some severe tests ahead, especially in reconciling with the House, which last year crafted a bill considered more regionally balanced but also specifying deeper cuts, especially in food stamps. This year, House leaders are reported to be seeking $20 billion in food assistance cuts.
In her keynote address to the Delta Council audience, Stabenow said the Senate bill recognizes “the diversity of agriculture,” a reference to the competing regional agriculture interests.
She said that working with Cochran, the Republican ranking member of the committee, “We managed to do what we needed to do for the South.”.
One of the biggest differences between the 2013 version of the Senate bill and the one passed last year is the addition of price supports for peanut and rice farmers, the New York Times reports. Last year, those farmers, who have long depended on direct payments, said the Senate bill would not provide adequate protection for them.
Money for the crop insurance and the price supports would come from elimination of about $5 billion in direct payments to farmers and farmland owners. The crop insurance program would pay 62 percent of the premiums for farmers and cover decreases in crop yields or revenue, the Times reported.
Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican whom Cochran replaced as ranking member of the agriculture panel this year, objected to the supports for rice and peanut farmers, saying they amounted to an “income transfer program, not a risk management tool,” the Times reported.
In a press statement last week, Cochran called the Senate measure a “workable bill that encourages conservation of land and water resources at the same time it rewards production of reasonably priced commodities.’
He noted it is critical that farmers and ranchers get the certainty that comes from a five-year Farm Bill. “We have tried to be fair to those affected by this bill, as well as to those who pay the bill,” he said.
Another significant provision of the Senate bill, Stabenow said in her Delta Council address, is creation of a new public-private entity to research development and marketing of agriculture-based bio-fuels. “The bill gives seed money” to the effort, she said.
Such an effort could be important to Mississippi, where state government has invested tens of millions in economic development dollars in companies seeking to develop marketable bio-fuels.