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Cochran as Ag Committee Ranking Member boosts hopes of Mississippi farmers

Southern agriculture producers who argue new farm legislation needs more regional balance have notched a victory with selection of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi as Ranking Republican Member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry for the 113th Congress:

Cochran, a member of the committee for more than three decades and chairman of the panel from 2003 to 2005, replaced Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas as Ranking Member.

Cochran said in a press statement Friday that framing a new Farm Bill extension will be a priority. “I will use the experiences I’ve gained in serving on the committee since 1979 to help quickly advance a new Farm Bill that will meet the needs of our country’s farmers, small businesses and those who rely on the nutrition programs under the Committee’s jurisdiction,” he said.

The Senate passed a five-year extension to the Farm Bill last summer but the House failed to act on a bill of its own, a circumstance that forces a resetting of the entire process to avoid having to return to provisions of the original 1949 Farm Bill, lawmakers enacted an emergency extension of the 2008 farm legislation. The latest extension expires at the end of September. Congressional leaders say they expect to have a new five-year extension passed by then.

The bill the Senate approved in June has cuts of $4.5 billion to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a program that has increased by $22 billion since the start of the recession. Nationally, the cuts could impact as many as 3 million people who get the food assistance.

The Senate bill drew criticism from Southern farmers who wanted crop insurance to include coverage for price declines. Without such coverage, rice and peanut growers would bear more of the burden of the billions in mandated cuts, the region’s farmers said.

In an interview just after passage of the Senate bill in June, Chip Morgan, executive VP of the Delta Council, a Stoneville-based economic development organization, said he was hoping Southern farmers would get better treatment in the House bill.

For the past four decades of federal farm legislation, the regions received proportional treatment in both subsidies and cuts, Morgan said. “That’s not what happened in the Senate bill. Crops in the South took disproportionate cuts,” he said the June interview.

Support for rice, for instance, took a 70 percent cut in the Senate bill, he said.

Morgan looked more favorably on what became the ill-fated House bill. It would have granted farmers the option to elect to have a safety net n place if a crop’s price fell significantly below the cost of production. “The House extended price-loss coverage” by including it as an option in revenue-loss coverage, Morgan said.

Opponents of the price-loss coverage say, however, it is fiscally irresponsible to increase target prices to all but guarantee profits to growers.

Whatever legislation lawmakers finally settle on is expected to carry cuts of 23 percent to 30 percent to comply with the Budget Control Act of 2011,

Cochran could find himself pulled in different directions by the competing needs of the state’s agriculture sector and the safety net food stamps provide one out of four Mississippians.

The Farm Billl that passed the Senate last year cut SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) by less than10 percent while a version the House considered before scuttling the bill cut SNAP by about 15 percent. ,

The food stamp program is the only true safety net left in federal programs, said John Davis, deputy administrator of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, in an interview during last summer’s consideration of the Farm Bill.

Many people in Mississippi who had been middle income wage earners have had to turn to the program since the recession began in 2008, he said.. “We have seen more non-traditional recipients than ever before.”

Many lost well-paying jobs or had to take pay cuts to stay employed, according to Davis.

“We’re issuing to about 295,000 households” or 654,000 people, Davis said, putting the percentage of state residents receiving the assistance at 25 percent.

“You’re talking over $80 million a month in the state of Mississippi in SNAP benefits alone,” he said.











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