Farm Bill defeat creates problems for farmers

ST. ALBANS — Late last week the U.S. House of Representatives rejected the U.S. Farm Bill, 234-195, thereby setting up the potential for devastating effects on the dairy industry and local farmers.

The rejection came after last-minute amendments made further changes to nutrition programs for the poor and removed the dairy price stabilization programs from the bill.

The House Agriculture Committee had reached a compromise that some Democrats were willing to support, despite the substantial cuts to nutrition programs, said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, last Friday. “It unraveled with these extreme amendments,” he added.

One of those amendments would have allowed states to impose work requirements on recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Welch called the amendment duplicitous. “It was about work programs that don’t even exist,” he said. Another amendment would have allowed for drug testing of SNAP recipients.

The bill already contained $40 billion in cuts, more than half of them from SNAP.  There were Democrats willing to support the Farm Bill despite the cuts to nutrition programs in the hope that when the bill moved to conference committee, where differences between the House and Senate versions would be resolved, the cuts would be reduced, Welch explained.

The amendments, however, made a bad situation worse, he said.

Angela Dieng-Smith of Hunger Free Vermont said the cuts would have dropped 7,000 Vermonters from the program and reduced benefits for 10,000 more.

In Vermont, 101,700 people receive SNAP assistance, 35,000 of them children. The average benefit is $4 per day in Vermont. 

Welch opposed the cuts.  “They’re brutal cuts,” he told the Messenger, pointing out that 61 percent of the families receiving SNAP benefits have children.

“Food stamps are only available to people who are pretty poor,” he said.

Welch was also working to keep the Dairy Price Stabilization Act as part of the bill. The act would have eliminated current support programs for the dairy industry, replacing them with a supply management program to stabilize the price of milk and a margin insurance program that would have insured farmers against sharp increases in feed prices or a sharp decline in milk prices, or both.

The act was the result of years of discussion and debate within the dairy farm community about the best way to stabilize milk prices, which currently fluctuate dramatically on a three-year cycle. In both 2006 and 2009 milk prices dropped well below the cost of production, causing farmers to lose money with every gallon of milk produced.

A last-minute amendment from Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., scuttled the supply management program, but left in place the margin supports.

FARMER REACTION

Franklin County farmer Bill Rowell of Highgate, who lobbied for the bill in Congress, called Goodlatte’s amendment a “blank check to the farmer to produce whatever he wants.”

In the early 1980s high price supports led to overproduction by farmers. Rowell said Goodlatte’s amendment would have created a similar situation with farmers guaranteed a price for their product. Rowell believes the amendment passed because urban members of the House misunderstand the dairy programs.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, also was opposed to the dairy program, believing it interfered with the free market. Welch said it is rare for a speaker to get directly involved in opposing a section of a bill, as Boehner did.

The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), which represents milk processors such as Dean Foods, opposed the supply stabilization program.

“They’ve distorted the facts,” Rowell said of IDFA’s lobbying efforts.

“The processor wants cheap milk,” he said. By keeping the margin supports and getting rid of any efforts to control supply, Rowell believes Goodlatte’s amendment would’ve created an oversupply of cheap milk.

Rowell called the failure to approve the stabilization programs “short-sighted.”

By replacing current programs, “it actually saved the government money,” said Rowell. “It stabilizes the price to the farmer and the consumer.”

This is the second year in a row in which the Senate has passed a Farm Bill with bipartisan support and the House has failed to approve a bill.

A new Farm Bill has historically been passed every five years. The bill authorizes many of the programs overseen by the USDA, including school lunch programs, rural development loans and grants, environmental programs, crop insurance and other agricultural programs.

The most recent Farm Bill expired last year, but Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was able to secure an extension for one year as part of the last-minute budget deal reached on Dec. 31, 2012, to prevent a government shutdown.

That extension reinstated for one year the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC), currently the main support program for dairy farmers. When prices drop below $16.94 per hundredweight, with some allowance for feed prices, farmers receive a support check from the government. There is a limit to the volume of milk for which a farmer can receive support.

With the extension of the Farm Bill, MILC is set to expire on Sept. 30.

AID TO NEEDY

Most of the nutrition programs will continue at their current level of funding unless another Farm Bill is passed either raising or lowering spending. Unless they pass a Farm Bill, Republicans cannot have the SNAP cuts they were seeking.

“That’s the irony,” said Welch. “Many on the Republican side wanted to go even higher. In overreaching, they lost completely.”

Welch said he observed a “significant number of members in that caucus putting ideology ahead of practicality.”

Nevertheless, Welch hopes the House will resume work on the bill. “We’ve got to get back at it,” he said.

The House could take up the bill again, vote on the Senate bill, or pass another extension of the existing one. The Agriculture Committee also could attempt to craft another bill. That decision rests with Boehner, said Welch.

Outside of the House, opposition to the bill came from across the political spectrum. Some conservative critics argued the cuts to nutrition programs did not go far enough. Environmentalists were unhappy with $5 billion in cuts to conservation programs. Food activists criticized cuts to nutrition programs and increases in supports for corn and other crops used in food processing.

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