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A 48-hour farm bill?

Agriculture.com Staff 04/03/2008 @ 3:15pm

The leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committee's have agreed on a broad outline of a final farm bill, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), told reporters Thursday.

But a battle over how the farm bill will be paid for rages on.

"We do not yet have a resolution on the source of the funding," Harkin said.

It needs to be resolved soon, in about 48 hours, he said. That's necessary for ag committee staffers to have time to put a final draft of a bill in writing and get a conference committee of House and Senate Ag Committee members to approve it before the latest farm bill extension runs out on April 18.

The sticking point seems to be how much will be spent on a permanent disaster program compared to increases for food stamps in the farm bill's nutrition title.

Senator Max Baucus, Chairman of the Finance Committee, reportedly wants more than $4 billion in new spending to pay for a permanent disaster program over the next 10 years. That would benefit wheat farmers in his state and other regions of the Great Plains.

Representative Charles Rangel, a New Yorker who heads the House Ways and Means Committee, is reported to be upset that a $9.5 billion increase in funding for food stamps is being considered, not the $11.5 billion passed in the House Farm Bill last summer.

Harkin said Thursday that he understands Rangel is concerned whether that size of an increase will be adequate. Funding for food stamps has not been adjusted for inflation for several years and low-income Americans are being hit especially hard now by rising prices for food and gasoline, Harkin said.

"I think Mr. Rangel has a very salient point," Harkin said.

Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committee's have already made some tough concessions in order to agree on how they would spend an extra $10 billion over the next 10 years in a farm bill estimated to cost about $600 billion over a decade.

In order to come up with money for permanent disaster and rebalancing some commodity program payments, the leaders of both ag committees agreed to cut $70 million from programs for specialty crops, $100 million for renewable energy and to zero out $120 million that had been set aside for rural development.

One of the biggest cuts was from $5 billion for conservation that the leaders had agreed to earlier, down to $4 billion.

For Harkin, that's an especially painful concession.

"We're plowing up more land. We're planting more crops to respond to market conditions and we know what’s happening to our soil and water," Harkin said. The $4 billion will still include money for a conservation stewardship program that will help farmers pay for conservation practices on those working lands. But Harkin obviously wanted more.

"If you don't do that, we're going to continue to mine our land," he said.

When asked about a proposal from the Center for Rural Affairs that Senator Chuck Grassley favors, one that would reduce direct payments when crop prices are high and would require active engagement in farming to get commodity payments, Harkin said he supports it but doesn’t know if it will have enough support in the conference committee.

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