WASHINGTON – The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee approved its 2007 farm bill proposal Oct. 25 and, according to Chairman Tom Harkin, floor consideration of the bill could be as early as next week.
The bill, officially dubbed the Food and Energy Security Act of 2007, would provide $283 billion over five years for agricultural, energy and nutrition programs.
The Senate committee worked through the two-day markup of the farm bill with “spirited negotiations,” Harkin said.
Crop revenue. The commodities title continues basic features of the 2002 farm bill, including the current crop “three-legged stool” of marketing loan, direct payment and counter-cyclical program.
But, according to Mike Smith, analyst with the Council of State Governments, considerable time was spent debating the inclusion of the Average Crop Revenue program, an optional subsidy that would tie certain payments to farmers to state crop revenue targets.
Smith said several committee members voiced their concern that since the program would allow farmers to opt out of receiving direct payments in lieu of reduced crop insurance rates and smaller payments, the crop insurance rates for those farmers who do not opt out of the program would be significantly larger.
After significant debate, Chairman Harkin and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, reached a compromise that would reduce the base acres on which farmers could collect payments and would require farmers opting into the new program to continue their participation for the life of the farm bill.
National Corn Growers Association President Ron Litterer expressed disappointment that the federal crop insurance integration was stripped from the revenue package.
“While we are pleased a revenue package is in the final bill reported out of committee, NCGA is deeply disappointed with this setback,” Litterer said. The amendment makes the revenue proposals a much less attractive option to growers.
Other features. As adopted by the committee, the farm bill contains language that would allow certain small state-inspected meat processors to sell meat and poultry across state lines.
The bill would also rename the Conservation Security Program to the Conservation Stewardship Program; and require 10-percent of conservation program funds to be used to assist beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
The nutrition title updates and increases food stamp benefit levels and expands the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to operate in every state.
The rural development title provides $400 million for funding a variety of programs that would help provide access to rural hospitals, improve water and wastewater facilities, expand access to broadband, and help to build rural businesses.
The bill’s energy title would provide $1.1 billion in investments in farm-based energy, including the establishment of a program to stimulate the production of perennial biomass crops.
The committee adopted several amendments, including an amendment by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., that would require the USDA to determine the current cost of feed and fuel, and use those costs to make allowances for dairy farmers.
Reactions. National farm groups responded to the Senate committee’s initial proposal with mixed reactions.
The National Pork Producers Council, which prefers the House version, likes the funding of conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), but dislikes the provision that would ban packer ownership of hogs and marketing contracts.
The National Farmers Union, on the other hand, touted the packer ban as a highlight of the measure and also applauded the language that would implement mandatory country-of-origin labeling for meats, fruits and vegetables.
The NFU’s priority for the farm bill was the inclusion of a permanent disaster program, according to farm group president Tom Buis, so members were happy to see the $5 billion disaster assistance program in the Senate version.
The American Farm Bureau Federation said the final proposal was a “significant improvement” over the bill the committee started with earlier in the week.
But, said President Bob Stallman, the Farm Bureau is still concerned that commodity title funding is being reduced in order to increase funding for other programs, such as conservation, nutrition and rural development.
What’s next? Following the Senate floor debate and vote, the Senate and the House versions must be reconciled in conference committee. Provisions of the 2002 farm bill will begin to expire in early 2008.
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