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Farm bill in works, still difficult

Leaders of congressional ag committees from both parties
seem optimistic that there will be a farm bill this year, but tough negotiating
remains, especially if committees have to trim spending even more than they did
when putting together bills in 2012.

That's the view the shared Tuesday with members of North
American Agricultural Journalists at the Capitol during the ag writer's annual
meeting.

"Will we get a five-year farm bill this year? I believe
we will," said Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX), who was standing in for
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK). Conaway heads the
subcommittee on general farm commodities and risk management.

Conaway said that he believes there will be less money for
the bill. He doesn't believe the committee will make big changes to how crop
insurance is supported by the federal government.

"It will still be strong," Conaway told
Agriculture.com in response to a question.

Crop insurers are telling Congress "give us credit for
the haircuts we've had in the past," Conaway said.

The House ag committee's ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, seems to be a strong supporter as well. But he is hearing complaints from some of his farmer constituents about insurance not being limited for very large farms.

Conaway said he expects his committee to mark up a new farm bill sometime
late this month or in May, but it won't be easy and it will need support of
both parties in the committee to have a chance of passing on the floor of the
House.

"There won't be 218 people in either party that will
vote for it," he said, referring to the number needed to reach a majority.
"I think this will, by necessity, be a bipartisan bill."

Strong support for protecting crop insurance from big
changes was voiced by Senate Agriculture Chairwoman, Debbie Stabenow (D-MI).

"We are talking about insurance...so the farmer has
skin in the game. It's not a subsidy," said Stabenow. "We need to
make sure it's affordable for farmers."

Just as a year ago, negotiating changes to the commodity
title of the farm bill and the spending level for the nutrition title remain
difficult.

Peterson said that more money
could be saved from SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, if the
federal government and not states, determined the income level for eligibility
for what used to be called food stamps.

The federal threshold for food stamp eligibility is 130% of
the poverty level, Peterson said, but in red states, it's actually higher--200%
in North Dakota, 165% in Texas and 185% in Arizona, versus 130% in Peterson's
state of Minnesota.

"The states that you would think would use this (the
lower, federal level) are not," he said.

Peterson said he's urging his committee colleagues "we
should be looking at policy here, instead of a number."

Stabenow's committee cut less from nutrition last year than
the House ag committee. This year, there isn't support in the Senate "to
change eligibility standards or the structure" of the program, she said.

In negotiations over the commodity title, Stabenow said she
hopes to find "middle ground" with southern interests, who are
represented on the committee by the ranking Republican, Thad Cochran of
Mississippi. But she also wants to "maintain the reforms in the
bill," including the elimination of direct payments. Those payments stayed
in effect for another year when the 2008 farm law was extended in early
January.

 

Cochran, for his part, said told NAAJ members that he's not
trying to hold up the farm bill in order to get a target price program for rice
and peanut farmers.

"I think they work. It's not an exact science," he
said.

"I'm open to considering what level we set those
rates," Cochran added.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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