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Broad farm bill support

The 2014 Farm Bill is approaching the finish line with widespread cheers -- and some notable jeers from a coalition of meat packers and livestock commodity groups.

Two of the nation's largest farm organizations, the American Farm Bureau Federation and Farmers Union, did not succeed in getting their own versions of a commodity program accepted by either the House or Senate Agriculture Committees. Yet both are supporting the bill's passage.

"That's what a farm bill is all about, is compromise," veteran Farm Bureau lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher told Tuesday. The current bill was written in a starkly different fiscal environment from those of 2002 and 2008. Agricultural groups knew that at least $20 billion would have to be cut from the 10-year congressional budget office estimate of the current bill's cost, she said.

"We knew that virtually everybody was going to have to give something," Thatcher said. "What the vast majority of producers told us was, 'Do all you can to protect commodity programs but above all else, protect crop insurance.' "

And the bill does that, she says. The premium subsidy for enterprise units is made permanent in the 2014 bill. It adds an extra 10% premium subsidy for insurance purchased by beginning farmers. And it provides separate enterprise unit coverage for irrigated and nonirrigated crops.

Farmers Union President Roger Johnson's first reaction was positive in a statement released Monday evening, even before the NFU board had a chance to read all of the bill.

"I am encouraged to see provisions that benefit family farmers and ranchers in the bill, including approximately $4 billion in livestock disaster funds, retroactively available to those who suffered tremendous losses last October," he said in a statement. "It increases access for livestock producers to Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) benefits, along with many other supportive policies for the livestock industry."

"NFU is happy that Congress did not make any legislative changes to the Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) law or major adjustments to protections for producers under the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA)," he added.

That contrasted with the view of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), which said Wednesday that it opposes final passage of the farm bill, which will be considered by the House of Representatives Wednesday.

"We are calling on Congress to fix the mistakes they have made, mistakes that are costing cattlemen and women money every day. Mistakes like Mandatory Country-of-Origin Labeling, which has already resulted in steep discounts to our producers and caused prejudice against our largest trading partners. This program was created without the consent of producers and has been a failure by every measure," NCBA president Scott George said in a statement. "We are disappointed in all members of Congress and especially the members of the Conference Committee for allowing this process to go this far without a solution. Failure to fix MCOOL at this juncture will lead to retaliatory tariffs on a host of commodities, and it is only a matter of time before the World Trade Organization rules in favor of Canada and Mexico. Once that happens, producers will realize the full costs of this failed legislation."

In their press conference Tuesday, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), both said that Congress opposes action on COOL right now.

"The chairman and I assessed this. The votes were not there in either body to do that," Stabenow said of repealing COOL. Instead, the ag committees are leaving the fate of COOL to the WTO process and the USDA's efforts to make the program comply with trade laws.

Stabenow pointed out that the farm bill has about $7 billion in programs for the livestock industry.

Farm Bureau's Thatcher agreed with that estimate, saying that, by law, 60% of the EQIP funding is designated for livestock producers.

Instead of backing such programs, livestock groups want to defeat the farm bill over COOL and GIPSA.

"To just focus on those two things is amazing," Thatcher said.

Other groups that were strongly disappointed with the bill are still supporting it.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition was a strong supporter of efforts by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) to close loopholes that allow wealthy investors who aren't active farmers to collect millions in commodity program payments.

"At a time of fiscal restraint, growing income inequality, and economic distress in rural communities, it is appalling for the new farm bill to continue uncapped, unlimited commodity and crop insurance subsidies for megafarms," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director with NSAC. "The backroom deal to reverse the reforms backed by a bipartisan majority of the both the House and the Senate is an affront to the democratic process."

However, the group's assistant policy director, Ariane Lotti, added that the group likes other aspects of the farm bill, including its support for beginning farmers and other programs that had no funding when the 2008 farm bill was extended through 2013. "We do not endorse the process that has led to completion of this farm bill nor do we think it represents the 21st century policy we need to support a sustainable farm and food system," Lotti added. "However, given a lengthy two-and-a-half year process and the importance of renewing funding for the most innovative programs for the future of agriculture, we support moving forward but will continue to work for the real reform this bill lacks."

Even the Environmental Working Group, which criticized the bill for its cuts to nutrition programs and for adding "to the already bloated crop insurance program," found a few things to like:

"The conference report has a few bright spots," EWG said. "Most importantly, it reattaches conservation compliance provisions to crop insurance premium subsidies. This critical step — taken largely, thanks to the leadership of Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and the good work of Sens. John Thune, R-SD, and Jon Tester, D-MT — will safeguard the gains made since 1985 in protecting soil and wetlands."

Small government groups like Heritage Action were actively working Tuesday to defeat the bill.

"By restoring the link between food stamps and agriculture policy, the conference committee reversed what Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) described as a 'victory for common sense that taxpayers won last year,' Heritage Action said in a statement. 'This logrolling,' Stutzman said in the press release, 'prevents the long-term reforms that both farm programs and food stamps deserve.' Indeed, the conference report lacks serious reforms."

Stabenow had an answer for such critics on Tuesday. She pointed out that the agriculture committees were the only ones in 2011 to submit a deficit-reduction plan to the so-called Super Committee that ultimately was unable to find a way to trim federal spending in order to avoid mandatory spending cuts.

Stabenow suggested that if other committees had done so, Congress would be on its way to ending the federal deficit.

"We don’t take a back seat to anybody on making tough decisions," Stabenow said.

Lucas agreed that the farm bill makes serious reforms in spending, by trimming some $23 billion in mandatory spending over the next decade.

Of the goal of deficit reduction, "if this is not the place and the process by which to accomplish this, how do we ever?" Lucas asked.

Over the next decade, the 2014 farm bill will cost the federal government nearly $1 trillion -- $972.9 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The bill makes the following cuts in spending:

--Farm programs: $18.4 billion

--Conservation: $6.1 billion

--Nutrition: $ 8.0 billion

According to one congressional staffer, "After reinvesting some of those savings back into key priorities like energy, strengthening crop insurance, research, and fruits and vegetable programs (among others), the bill reduces the deficit by $23.0 billion."

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