While lamenting cuts in funding for food stamps, Vermont officials are pleased that the new Farm Bill includes protections for dairy farmers and support for the maple syrup industry, vegetable growers, organic farmers, and conservation programs.
The massive legislation could reach President Barack Obama this week. The House already has passed the bipartisan measure and the Senate was scheduled to pass the bill Tuesday after the chamber voted to move forward on the legislation Monday evening.
Support for farmers through the subsidies included in the legislation helps determine the price of food and what is available. Money for food stamps helps the neediest Americans who might otherwise go hungry.
Vt. officials react
Vt. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat of the Senate Agriculture Committee and member of the conference committee reconciling the House and Senate versions of the bill, issued a statement Monday noting that despite many twists and turns in its legislative journey, "we have a bipartisan, bicameral Farm Bill that addresses the needs of every region in the country. It is time to pass this bill, send it to the president, and give sorely needed certainty to our farmers and families and rural communities."
The bill, he added, "saves taxpayers $23 billion. It eliminates duplicative programs. It strengthens the toolbox for conserving our natural resources. It gives farmers some much-needed and long-overdue certainty as they make planting decisions. It provides relief to struggling families, support for rural communities, and investments in a sustainable energy future."
Some of the recent upheaval over the bill centered on dairy policies.
"I am disappointed that the commonsense dairy policies that were passed twice by the full Senate and also by the House Agriculture Committee were ambushed at the last hour," Leahy said. "As a result we do not have a market stabilization program -- proposed by dairy farmers themselves -- that would have protected taxpayers from exorbitant costs, and insulated dairy farmers and consumers from volatile, rollercoastering milk prices."
However, the bill has a solution to help small dairy farms protect themselves from plummeting milk prices or skyrocketing feed prices, or the worst scenario, when both happen at once, he said.
"The final Farm Bill includes changes to lower the cost of this Margin Protection Program for Vermont's small, family dairy farms, while also discouraging large dairies from using the program to flood the market through overproduction of milk," Leahy said.
Leahy said that while he is "deeply disappointed" that the final bill contained cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), the conference committee rejected much deeper cuts, eliminating eligibility for millions of Americans and making it harder for school children to receive free school meals.
"Other demeaning and offensive provisions such as allowing drug testing of beneficiaries and unrealistic work requirements were also left out of the conference agreement," Leahy said. "Instead, the legislation promotes food security in low-income communities and encourages healthy eating through increased access to fruits and vegetables -- an approach that Vermont has led for years."
Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin spoke about the Farm Bill during a visit to the Banner office Monday.
"The fact that we got a farm bill is a miracle, it's really a testament to our congressional delegation -- Pat Leahy, Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch," Shumlin said. "The good news is that the insurance to support milk prices is critical to Vermont's farmers, because we have small farms. We don't have 50,000-head, $20,000-(a)-head herds."
In addition "the premium itself is scaled so the bigger farms pay more, the little farms pay less. So that piece of it is fantastic, at least for Vermont's dairy farmers, because we were in a never-never land. We were reverting back to some crazy bill where nobody knew what was going to happen to prices," Shumlin said. "So overall, the piece of the farm bill that affects farmers is a good piece of work, considering what we were up against in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"The part that's discouraging is we have $8 billion less being spent to support Americans with food (insecurity) than we had before this bill," he said, "but we need to remember again that the tea party House wanted to reduce help for Vermonters and Americans who are hungry by $40 billion. So given the awful choices that faced Congress, we did pretty well."
Upon the bill passing the House on Jan. 29, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said "This bill is far from perfect but America and Vermont need a Farm Bill."
He called it significantly better than the status quo "and will provide much needed relief to Vermont's dairy farmers, vegetable growers, and the organics and maple syrup industries. A new insurance program will provide a strong safety net for dairy farmers."
5 things to know
The Associated Press offers this guide to " five things you should know" about the Farm Bill:
* Where the money goes: Most of the bill's almost $100 billion-a-year price tag goes to the nation's food stamp program, now known as SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. One in seven Americans, or about 47 million people, participates in the program. The legislation cuts food stamps by about $800 million, or 1 percent, by cracking down on states that seek to boost individual food stamp benefits by giving people small amounts of federal heating assistance that they don't need. Much of the rest of the money goes to farm subsidies and programs to protect environmentally sensitive lands.
* Subsidies maintained: Farmers will continue to receive generous federal subsidies that help them stay in business in an unpredictable environment, but through revamped programs. The bill eliminates a fixed $4.5 billion-a-year subsidy called direct payments, which are paid to farmers whether they farm or not. New subsidies would require farmers to incur losses before they could collect from the federal government. The bill would also overhaul dairy and cotton subsidies and transition them into similar insurance-style programs. Most farmers would pick between a program that would pay out when revenue dips or another that pays out when prices drop.
The legislation would also spend about $570 million more a year on crop insurance, which, on top of subsidies, protects farmers in the event of major losses.
* Crackdown on food stamp fraud: The Agriculture Department has been aggressively tackling food stamp fraud in recent years and the final farm bill will add to that. It would step up efforts to reduce fraud by retailers who sell food stamps, track SNAP trafficking and ensure that people who have died do not receive benefits. The bill would also prohibit lottery winners and convicted murderers and sex offenders from receiving food stamps.
* Hemp laws relaxed: The bill would allow farmers to grow hemp, marijuana's non-intoxicating cousin, in 10 states as research projects. Those states already allow the growing of hemp, though federal drug law has blocked actual cultivation in most.
Hemp is often used in rope but has also been used to make clothing, mulch, foods, creams, soaps and lotions.
* Victory for animal rights groups: The No. 1 farm bill priority for animal rights groups was to defeat a House provision that would have blocked an upcoming California law requiring all eggs sold in the state to come from hens that live in larger cages. Livestock groups have fought the state law, which will be a major burden for egg producers in other states who use smaller cages and still want to sell eggs to the lucrative California market. The animal rights groups won, and the provision blocking the California law didn't make it into the final bill.
The animal rights groups also won language that will make it a federal crime to attend an animal fighting event or bring a child to one.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.