HARKIN ON FARM BILL: 'WE'RE BASICALLY DONE'
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "We're basically done."
That was the word from Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin after Thursday's six-hour conference committee meeting left only nine unresolved policy issues that are expected to be ironed out this weekend.
While the package the conference committee worked out Thursday evening allows for some new safety net provisions for farmers, including a $3.7 billion permanent ag disaster aid program, the bulk -- almost two-thirds over the next five years -- of the $290 billion farm bill will go to nutrition and food aid spending for schoolchildren and the needy.
"Today's adoption of all major elements of the new farm bill brings us within a few steps of the finish line," said Harkin. "The Senate-House conference committee on the farm bill is now in the final stages of a strong, bipartisan bill that that will bring new funding and better policy in core farm bill initiatives -- conservation, energy, nutrition and rural development -- while continuing and strengthening farm income protection.
"This bill provides support for everything from agricultural research and beginning farmers to protecting our natural resources and helping to feed hungry families. It looks to the future in renewable energy production and it ensures farmers have the income protection they need. Congressional negotiators have come a long way and are preparing to send the President a farm bill he can sign."
Whether Bush will sign this package remains to be seen, however. Deputy U.S. Ag Secretary Chuck Conner issued a statement after 11 p.m. Eastern time Thursday night, urging Congress to reduce the overall size of the bill and include more "reforms."
"The president wants a bill that meets his criteria," said Conner's statement. "If sent to him without meeting this criteria, he would be forced to veto the bill."
The House and Senate voted Thursday to extend the current farm bill to May 16 in hope that the new legislation will be ready for a vote as early as next week.
Other provisions include an optional counter-cyclical pilot program that is to begin in 2010, an increase in target rates and loan rates for various commodities and $313 million in cuts to direct payments over the life of the bill.
It also seeks to promote biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol by providing grants and loan guarantees to farmers who produce biomass crops, and expands the renewable energy and energy efficiency program adopted in the 2002 bill.
The new conservation title gets a new name -- Conservation Stewardship Program -- and will enroll just under 13 million acres annually starting in 2009 up to 2017. However, the focus will be strongly shifted toward working land conservation rather than land retirement.
Other highlights of the conference report titles include:
--The bill includes a newly named Producer Income Protection title that continues basic features of the 2002 bill, which farmers have thought 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 better options for managing risk of both yield and price declines on their farms in today?s uncertain, rapidly changing farm environment.
--The new farm bill includes the first-ever Livestock Title to provide basic protections for producers in livestock and poultry markets.
Among the highlights:
-- Provides producers the ability to decline to be bound by an arbitration clause in a livestock or poultry contract.
-- Enables a producer to settle a dispute in the Federal judicial district where he or she lives rather than where the company headquarters is located.
-- Provides the compromise for country of origin labeling of meat, fruits and vegetables, peanuts, pecans and macadamia nuts.
-- Improves oversight of USDA's enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act be requiring the Department to provide an annual compliance report detailing the number and length of time spent on investigations of potential violations of the Act.
-- Assist hog producers by authorizing a program for trichinae certification to promote trade and marketing of pork.
-- Federal Food Assistance: historic investments in fighting hunger and inadequate nutrition, including:
-- ending benefit erosion caused by inflation
-- providing food assistance without requiring recipients to exhaust savings and retirement accounts
-- increasing food assistance to households with high child care costs
-- $1.25 billion dollars in commodity purchases for food banks
-- $1 billion to improve child nutrition by expanding the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program nationally.
--Organic Research and Extension Initiative: The Research Title provides $78 million in mandatory funds for the program, which enhances the ability of organic producers and processors to grow and market organic food, feed and fiber.
-- Specialty Crop Research Initiative: The bill provides $230 million in mandatory funds for this new grants program to help meet the needs of producers and processors of specialty crops in the areas of mechanization, plant breeding, genetics, genomics, pests and diseases, and food safety.
-- Rural Water and Wastewater: $120 million in mandatory funds for the pending rural development loan and grant applications for rural water and wastewater assistance.
--Value-Added Producer Grant Program: $15 million for the program, which encourages independent producers of agricultural commodities to process their raw commodities into marketable goods.
--Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program: $15 million in mandatory funds for the program, which provides technical assistance and small loans to beginning entrepreneurs to help start businesses in rural areas.
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
-- Organics: Funding for The National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program has been increased from $5 million in the last farm bill, to $22 million. The farm bill also supports the Organic Data Collection Initiative, which provides USDA and organic producers with national production and market data to effectively market their products.
--Pest and Disease Detection: Over $400 million over the next ten years for a new program to improve our pest and disease detection capabilities. The bill also provides $20 million for the National Clean Plant Network, which will strengthen our research to improve plant health and eradicate plant viruses.
--Farmers/ Markets: expansion of the Farmers' Market Promotion Program, first created in the 2002 farm bill, by providing $33 million over the next five years to continue our investment in promoting fresh, local foods.
Among the issues not yet settled are final figures on adjusted income limits for farm program payments and final policy on beneficial interest for marketing loans.