By Ty Higgins and Matt Reese
This week, the U.S. Senate has devoted many hours and voted on many amendments to pass their version of the 2012 Farm Bill. Over the last 3 days the chamber has taken on over 70 amendments before passing the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act with a 64-35 vote Thursday afternoon. Ohio Sen. Robert Portman voted against the legislation, though it had the strong support of Sen. Sherrod Brown from Ohio, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The bill reduces the cost to taxpayers by more than $23 billion and eliminates 96 unnecessary programs and authorizations, representing major reform and deficit reduction.
“Numerous Ohio Farm Bureau priorities are included in the Senate version: a strengthening of risk management tools, an emphasis on conservation and support for research and rural development,” said the organization in a statement. “It’s noteworthy that this farm bill is the product of bipartisan efforts. The bill contains significant and difficult reforms, an accomplishment that should not be understated in the current political climate.”
Many farmers are wondering how this bill will affect their operation.
“Despite a variety of political, economic and institutional challenges, the leaders of the Senate, and in particular, the leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sens. Stabenow and Roberts, have delivered on their promise to produce better farm and food policy. We appreciate their hard work in the past months, and will work in turn to ensure the House produces a similar bill in the coming months,” said Jerry Kozak, President and CEO of National Milk Producers Federation.
Kozak said the Senate’s dairy title contains a better safety net for farmers in the form of the Dairy Production Margin Protection Program, which offers them a basic level of coverage against low margins, as well as a supplemental insurance plan offering higher levels of protection jointly funded by the government and participating farmers. Those farmers choosing to enroll in the margin program will also be subject to a Market Stabilization Program that addresses the imbalance between supply and demand when farm-level margins are poor.
For corn growers the news is also much more good than bad, according to Ohio farmer Anthony Bush, who is also the Chairman of the National Corn Growers Association Public Policy Action Team.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, I would say the Senate Farm Bill ranks about a 7 for corn growers,” Bush said. “There were a lot of good things that went through, but there were a lot of things that set what I would call ‘concerning precedents’ for AGI limits and crop insurance reforms that quite frankly scare me a little bit. Take into account the budget situation that we are in and the regulatory climate in Washington and overall we are not doing too badly.”
Some of the factors coming out of the Senate’s version of farm law are not only positive for America’s corn growers, but America’s tax payers as well. One example is the market oriented revenue approach, known as the ARC or Ag Risk Coverage program.
“This program is much more defensible to the tax payer,” Bush said. “It saves a considerable amount of money over current spending. We feel that it can do a good job of protecting farmers but it isn’t going to be as good as what we’ve had in the past.”
The quick movement in the Senate may come to a grinding halt once the farm bill reaches the House floor, however. Along with strong opposition some of the Representatives will have on the Senate’s version, Bush said he expects upwards of three times the number of amendments that lawmakers will attempt to tag onto the bill.
Will that slow up the progress so much so that we may not see the Farm Bill passed yet this year?
“It depends on how leadership handles the amendment process in the House,” Bush said. “If Speaker Boehner follows his open rule, the list of amendments could be great and far reaching.”
Bush remains hopeful that the system of U.S. government can work officially and get the Farm Bill done.
“That might be wishful thinking,” Bush said. “But I am still optimistic.”
Further frustration for the farm bill will come with major battles over the long-standing regional differences for support of southern versus Midwestern crop production as the farm bill is hashed out between the Senate and the House.
Here is an overview of some of the farm amendments in the Senate’s Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act.
Among the many amendments was one that called for slashing MAP funding by 20% ($40 million annually). The amendment would also have imposed arbitrary limitations on which international marketing activities could utilize the remaining funds. Thanks to effective advocacy by a wide range of agricultural groups supportive of U.S. export promotion efforts, the amendment was defeated by a vote of 30 to 69.
Trade enhances global prosperity, expands U.S. exports, and promotes jobs and economic growth at home. Many U.S. companies, trade associations, and federal, state, and local governments work to increase opportunities for U.S. exporters. Some of these efforts promote the sale of particular products or brands. Others are broader in scope and promote entire industry sectors or a “made in the USA” brand.
MAP is a longstanding program through which the Foreign Agricultural Service has partnered with “co-operator” organizations to work jointly on projects of mutual interest.
The Senate passed an amendment that places a $75,000 cap on marketing loan payment limits.
Animal welfare amendments
There were multiple amendments proposed that pertained to animal welfare regulations. Senate leaders denied consideration of an egg industry reform measure, requested by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, that would have phased out the use of barren battery cages, provided more space and enrichments for hens, and provided greater regulatory security for egg producers.
The Senate also denied Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., an opportunity to offer an amendment that would have cracked down on illegal dogfighting and cockfighting operations, by building onto the existing federal law related to animal fighting and making it a crime to attend or to bring a minor to an animal fighting enterprise. A similar, but separate bill, was introduced in the Senate outside of the farm bill.
Agricultural stakeholder groups from all corners of the industry expressed opposition to an amendment that would make federal research, promotion and marketing programs — also called “checkoffs” — voluntary. The measure was proposed by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
“Checkoff programs cost the government zero dollars. They are paid for and guided by the farmers they serve. Even USDA oversight of the soy checkoff is funded by soybean farmers. Furthermore, farmers already have the chance to vote via referendum every five years whether we continue such checkoff programs,” said Steve Wellman, president of the American Soybean Association. “ASA strongly opposes Sen. DeMint’s amendment, and will work to defeat any effort that would weaken checkoff programs.”
This amendment was defeated 20-79.
An amendment by Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) to authorize states to require mandatory labeling of biotech food products lost on a vote of 26-73.
The National Corn Growers Association, among others, was very disappointed to see passage of Senator Saxby Chambliss’ conservation compliance for crop insurance amendment in the farm bill.
“Our members have spent a significant amount of time discussing this issue and feel this addition to the farm bill would have a negative impact toward America’s farmers,” said Garry Niemeyer, NCGA president. “NCGA’s official policy states we oppose the coupling of conservation compliance to eligibility for federal crop insurance.”
Senator Pat Toomey’s amendment to repeal the Biorefinery Assistance Program in the Energy Title of the Farm Bill was defeated. “The Biorefinery Assistance Program is instrumental in the production of the next generation of ethanol. This program is in place to foster innovation and American excellence. By rejecting this amendment, the Senate has clearly shown they understand the importance of advanced biofuels and the benefits of cleaner air, job creation and energy security,” said Tom Buis, Growth Energy CEO.
An amendment sponsored by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to support rural development garnered bipartisan support with a vote of 55-44. The amendment proposes funding critical U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development programs that help Ohio communities update wastewater and sewer infrastructure systems, provide access to capital for Ohio agricultural producers and small businesses, and provide technical assistance to beginning farmers and ranchers.