COMMITTE'S FARM BILL HEADS TO SENATE FLOOR
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Senate Agriculture Committee passed its version of the farm bill out of committee by voice vote late Thursday. The bill is expected to go to the floor of the Senate the week of Nov. 5.
The House Agriculture Committee approved its version of the farm bill in July. Both drafts will now head to the Senate floor, followed by a Senate-House conference committee to work out the differences of the two versions before heading to President Bush's desk.
While American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said the measure was a "significant improvement" over its earlier version this week, he issued a statement saying that the AFBF remains "concerned" over the possibility of serious reductions in commodity title funding.
Officially known as the Food and Energy Security Act, the Senate Agriculture Committee claims the measure continues and improves farm income protection and makes historic investments for the future in energy, conservation, nutrition and rural development initiatives -- all while staying within strict budget limits.
Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) hailed the bill's passage and thanked membership of the Committee. "After months of negotiations, we were able to work within a very strict budget allocation to complete our work and pass a farm bill that is good for agriculture, good for rural areas and good for the health of Americans," said Harkin. "Our committee was able to use budget offsets and report a bill that makes major investments for the future and is still fiscally responsible. This is a forward-looking farm bill with greatly strengthened initiatives to support renewable energy, conservation, nutrition, rural development and to promote better diets and health for all Americans. It maintains a strong safety net for farm producers, and strengthens programs that will help agricultural producers of all kinds across our nation.
"I thank all committee members for their cooperation in getting this bill passed and join them in looking forward to swift consideration on the Senate floor."
The bill includes a newly named Producer Income Protection title of that continues basic features of the 2002 bill, which have worked well, and it gives producers a new option, beginning with the 2010 crop year, to choose to participate in a state-level revenue protection system. The Average Crop Revenue program offers producers options for managing risk on their farms in today?s uncertain, rapidly changing farm environment.
The conservation title extends key conservation programs and increases critical funding. This will allow CSP -- now renamed the Conservation Stewardship Program -- to grow vigorously at a pace of more than 13 million acres a year, which with the 15 million acres already enrolled, will equal 80 million acres in 5 years. This funding will also continue to allow increased enrollment in the Wetland Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Grassland Reserve Program.
The energy title provides investments in farm-based energy by creating initiatives with financial incentives to help farmers transition into biomass crops, and supports the construction of biorefineries from cellulose ethanol with a loan guarantee program that will provide up to 80 percent of total project cost with a loan cap of $250 million. The bill expands markets for biobased products, and invests in farm-based energy R&D, and in helping farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses move to renewable energy and energy efficiency.
The nutrition title updates nutrition program rules, increases Food Stamp benefit levels, and stops the erosion of benefits that has gone unchecked since 1996. It expands the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program created by Harkin to reach nearly 4.5 million children in elementary schools nationwide.
The bill's livestock title will promote market opportunities for producers; it will protect animal health; and it will strengthen enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act. This title strengthens the mandatory Country of Origin Labeling, with minor changes.
The rural development title provides $400 million in budget authority for a variety of initiatives that will promote economic growth and create jobs in rural communities. This title will help agriculture producers and small businesses to create and capitalize on new opportunities. It will bring quality, affordable day care as well as improved access to broadband to rural America. It will provide loans to rural hospitals so that they can acquire the best equipment possible.
The bill greatly increases assistance to growers of fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops.
Yet, it is the commodity title that causes the greatest concern from the American Farm Bureau Federation, which fears that commodity title funding would suffer greatly in an effort to boost conservation, nutritionn and rural development programs.
"We remain concerned that when the budget numbers on the final Senate Agriculture Committee bill are finalized, we will find that commodity title funding will have been reduced in order to increase funding for other priorities such as conservation, nutrition and rural development," AFBF's Stallman said.
The AFBF noted that the 2002 farm bill funded $16.5 billion annually for five years, but the current Congressional Budget Office baseline provides an annual average of only $7 billion -- less than half of the 2002 bill -- over a period of six years.
Earlier this week, the Alabama Farmers Federation also voiced concerns. Keith Gray, director of the Federation's Department of National Affairs said the bill was "moving in the wrong direction" and was "extremely prejudicial against some crops."
According to USAgNet.com, the National Corn Growers Association is disappointed by the committee's action to strip a key component of the optional revenue-based countercyclical program, the integration with federal crop insurance. The Web site quoted NCGA President Ron Litterer as saying that move was "a missed opportunity to provide a better risk management tool in the new farm bill."
Another critic of the measure, reported USAgNet.com, is the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which it said criticized the bill as containing "a number of disappointing provisions which would undermine the competitive marketplace and fail to adequately fund important cost-share conservation programs."
For more information, visit agriculture.senate.gov.