Farm bill [almost] done

SALEM, Ohio — House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson feels like he’s playing a popular video arcade game: Key farm bill negotiators put out one fire, just to turn around and face another two flares.

“We have been playing Whack-a-Mole, if you understand that game, for the past number of weeks,” Peterson said May 2 during a teleconference. “You just get one thing solved and three other things pop up.”

After a six-hour marathon conference session that ended around 1 a.m. May 2, Peterson and other key Congressional leaders say the new farm bill is “almost done.”

What’s left

The sticky payment limitation issue wasn’t resolved last week, and was one of the things that triggered a two-week extension of the current farm bill through May 16.

There’s also ongoing discussions with the new Milk Income Loss Contract program; the dairy import assessment; and the big White House-placed hurdle with the sugar program.

Peterson said the sugar program would include a loan rate increase for the first time in 20 years; a way to lock in an allocation system; and a sugar-to-ethanol program, but “the White House doesn’t like any of this.” The House ag committee chairman added that no one on the Hill could pin down White House representatives on what exactly they don’t like about the changes.

Many Congressional negotiators and staffers worked over the past weekend, writing final language to move the bill to the floor this week.

“We have to get this right because this becomes law,” Peterson said. “We’re not going to give up now.”

Regional shift

The change in Congressional leadership from Republicans to Democrats created a geographic regional shift in the power brokers fashioning the farm bill.

Peterson, who represents Minnesota, was joined by Democratic regional allies Sen. Kent Conrad and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, both of North Dakota. Conrad sits on the Senate ag committee and Pomeroy sits on both the ag and Ways and Means committees in the House. The Senate ag leader, Tom Harkin, represents Iowa, and Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus hails from Montana.

The change meant a not-so-subtle shift away from the southern interests of cotton, rice and peanuts, as seen in rebalancing adjustments in loan rates and target prices ($6.05 on beans, for example).

“They [southerners] made out like bandits in the ’02 bill,” Peterson said.

What’s in it?

The latest version of the farm bill also includes an optional market-based revenue countercyclical program.

It includes the Average Crop Revenue Election program modeled after legislation introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, last year. The program creates a state-level crop revenue protection program for producers to better manage their risk.

The bill also has a $3.7 billion permanent agriculture disaster aid program that allows price support protection and ready assistance in the event of a disaster.

The completed legislation will have to be approved by both the Senate and House before being sent to the White House, and the Congressional Budget Office has to score the latest farm bill package before it goes to the president’s desk.

Farm bill conference highlights:

Commodities Title:

– Includes a newly named Producer Income Protection title that continues basic features of the 2002 bill, 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 options for managing risk of both yield and price declines.

Conservation Title:

– The new CSP, renamed Conservation Stewardship Program, provides incentives for adopting, improving and maintaining conservation practices on land in agricultural production. The program will enroll just under 13 million acres each year (starting in 2009) through 2017, for a total of nearly 115 million acres. An additional $1.1 billion was provided for CSP for a total of $12 billion over 10 years.

– This title shifts the focus in conservation in the direction of working land conservation. Funding that would not have been used in land retirement programs was redirected to programs that focus on reducing the environmental impact of agricultural production, like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and CSP.

Energy Title:

– Increases biofuels production: The farm bill will accelerate commercialization of advanced biofuels, like cellulosic ethanol, by providing grants and loan guarantees to support these new biorefineries, and by increasing bioenergy research. It also expands the renewable energy and energy efficiency program adopted in the 2002 farm bill.

Livestock Title:

– 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.

– 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.

Nutrition Title:

– Ends benefit erosion caused by inflation; provides food assistance without requiring recipients to exhaust savings and retirement accounts; increases food assistance to households with high child care costs; authorizes $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.

Research Title:

– The Research Title provides $78 million in mandatory funds for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative; the Specialty Crop Research Initiative provides $230 million in mandatory funds for a 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 Development Title:

– $120 million in mandatory funds for the pending rural development loan and grant applications for rural water and wastewater assistance; the Value-Added Producer Grant Program gets $15 million to encourage independent producers to process their raw commodities into marketable goods; a Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program receives $15 million (the program provides assistance and small loans to beginning entrepreneurs to help start businesses in rural areas).

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables:

– 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; allocates more than $400 million over the next 10 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.

– Expands the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program, by providing $33 million over the next five years.

Source: Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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