Accord reached on Farm Bill
Congress is set to vote this week on a full Farm Bill that both Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Chris Collins say supports and protects growers and consumers.
A compromise bill covering a $1 trillion package of farm and nutrition assistance policies running through 2019 will go before the house Wednesday, and likely pass soon after in the Senate according to Schumer.
The final vote, which Collins said would be passed by a bipartisan coalition of moderate members of both caucuses, will come after more than a year of negotiations over farm subsidies and cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.
“We are very, very happy for our farmers, to be able to give them five years of certainty, to give them the rules of the road, so they can plan their activities and the growth of their farms and have confidence for growth and jobs,” Collins said. “This lets our farmers get back to running their farms and concentrating on growing crops.”
The compromise has the backing of the New York Farm Bureau, which NYFB President Dean Norton of Elba hailed as an “economic development package for rural New York.” Norton feels it will marry the needs of farmers and consumers by improving the financial infrastructure to support a growing dairy industry, support new farming projects, and communities that rely on agriculture as a major economic driver.
“This bill allows us to keep rural communities like Batavia, Medina and Albion vibrant and allow families to continue to farm,” Norton said after briefing Farm Bureau members on the bill. “This will help our rural economy flourish.”
The passage of the conference bill is not subject to major amendments, including those aimed at expanding protections to a wide range of dairy farms. Schumer said the new dairy margin insurance program, which replaces the federal MILC program, will offer lower premium rates to farms with under 200 cows while expanding the number of cows covered by insurance, a provision benefiting larger dairy farms.
The new policies, which also include block grants for new farms and expansion projects on existing farms, are aimed at increasing milk production to meet the demand created by the growing cheese and greek yogurt industries.
“This will help expand our dairy industry, as it will be a lot easier to grow the number of cows a farm milks,” Schumer said. “I expect amount of milk production to grow.”
Norton believes the real benefit of the new dairy policies is stability. Having both five years of federal policies and an improved safety net will allow farms to better plan their efforts.
“The intention ... was to help even out the highs and the lows that we’ve experienced in the dairy industry,” Norton said. “The highs won’t be too high but the lows won’t be so low that we can’t manufacture milk. We can cover our costs and keep our farmers busy.”
Fruit and vegetable growers will also receive greater access to crop insurance as well as block grant funding to expand on value-added products and the benefits from additional crop research. A greater emphasis will be placed on insurance compared to the extensive subsidies offered in the past.
“Whether it’s fruits or vegetables, new programs will provide more crop insurance for specialty crop growers and innovative program for non-insured crops,” Norton said. “There will be block grants targeted for New York.”
Schumer said popular programs like the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops, the Agricultural Marketing Service for Specialty crops and the National Clean Plant Network are all sustained in the compromise bill.
The state’s maple industry is one farming asset that will receive a major boost from the program. New York will receive up to $20 million in annual grant funding to create programs to encourage private landowners to open their trees up for maple tapping.
“We have 300 million maple trees in New York,” Norton said, which is more than maple-rich markets like Vermont and Quebec. “With this assistance, we can tap into that.”
The compromise bill proposes an $8 billion reduction in nutritional assistance funding for the poor, which Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand argued belies any thoughts of “progress” stemming from the bill. Gillibrand came out against the bill Tuesday.
“Only in Washington could a final bill that doubles the already egregious cuts to hungry families, while somehow not creating any additional savings than originally proposed, be called progress,” Gillibrand said via email. “This bill will result in less food on the table for children, seniors and veterans who deserve better from this Congress, while corporations continue to receive guaranteed federal handouts. I cannot vote for it on the Senate floor.”
Schumer said he supported Gillibrand’s efforts to maintain federal nutrition assistance, but that the wider benefits to agriculture and the upstate economy outweighed his reservations about SNAP cuts.
“It’s not perfect, but this is essential for upstate farmers as they look forward to the next season,” Schumer said.
Arguing that the bill removes food from those who truly need it is a ready-made campaign distortion, Collin said Tuesday.
“No one who deserves food stamps is getting any cuts,” offered Collins, who said that most of the reduction would be for recipients who do not meet existing income requirements. “We’re not taking them from the truly eligible, nor are we reducing assistance (levels).”
According to Collins, the new Farm Bill is the first in more than 50 years not to simply be a re-authorization of the 1949 Farm Bill. That would alleviate concerns in future Farm Bill cycles that federal inaction would lead to the devastating reversions to antiquated policies.
“The one big concern is always that if the Farm Bill expires things would revert back to 1949,” Collins said. “That would have turned everything on it’s head, especially with dairy. This resets it, so that if in five years there are problems, the default would be 2014.”