The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry voted unanimously to report a farm bill that includes a new average crop revenue or ACR option for row crop producers and greatly expanded conservation, energy and nutrition programs.
But anyone who expects the committee bill to be the last word on those and issues such as payment limits only had to look at the outpouring of criticism of the bill from farm and environmental groups and the words of committee members themselves to see how far the process has to go.
Even Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, indicated he would support some attempts to modify the bill once it reaches the Senate floor, which could occur near the end of this week or the first week in November, Senate sources said.
“I may be involved in offering some amendments on the floor myself,” Harkin told reporters. He was answering a question about legislation creating a permanent disaster program, but he said he's also likely to support an amendment putting a “hard cap” of $250,000 on farm program payments.
Although the committee bill would reduce the adjusted gross income a farmer could have and remain eligible for farm payments to $750,000 in 2010, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told the committee he would introduce much more stringent payment limit rules on the Senate floor.
Harkin said he believes the overall bill, the Food and Energy Security Act of 2007, will have support on the Senate floor and chances are good that he will still meet his goal of getting a farm bill out of the Senate and to a conference committee before Congress adjourns for the year.
“We're going to have amendments, don't get me wrong,” he said. “We will have a payment limit amendment — the Grassley-Dorgan legislation, and I have every reason to believe that it will pass. There may be other amendments to reduce direct payments and put the savings into the Food Stamp program.”
Harkin said he also expects Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., to try to pass an amendment that would replace the current crop subsidies with legislation known as the Farm Ranch Equity Stewardship and Health Act. Instead of subsidies, the reform bill would provide a federally backed insurance program that would be free for all growers.
“Quite frankly, it might get a lot of votes,” said Harkin. “But, one way or the other, we are going to hold this bill together, and we're going to proceed. It may be a little bit different coming out the Senate, but that's nothing new, they always are.”
One of the “highlights” of the bill, Harkin said, is a new Producer Income Protection Program called the Average Crop Revenue Program.
“It will give farmers an option of sticking with the old ways of doing things or trying something new,” he said. “It's about time that we start getting some reforms in and start moving our farm programs in a different direction.”
But USDA officials and farm and environmental groups said the reforms in the bill don't go far enough. Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner was among those criticizing the bill's lack of significant reforms in such areas as payment limits.
“At this point we don't believe the adjusted gross income limit that has been passed by the Senate committee with its so-called ‘soft cap’ represents real reform, and really equates to no reform at all,” said Conner. “In fact, our economists believe that it will have less of an impact on payments than the House version of the bill.”
Conner said the Senate committee's inclusion of a revenue-based counter-cyclical program “is a recognition that the current safety net has some flaws in it, a safety net that pays farmers the most when they need it the least and doesn't pay them very much at all when they do need a lot of help.”
The National Corn Growers Association, one of the first and strongest supporters of the revenue-based counter-cyclical program, said it was disappointed by the Senate committee's decision to strip a “key component” of the program, its integration with federal crop insurance.
At the last minute, the committee adopted an amendment offered by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. The amendment changed the percentage of base acres eligible from 100 percent to 85 percent and removed a reduction in federal crop insurance premiums for farmers who participated in the average crop revenue program.
“While we are pleased a revenue package is in the final bill reported out of the committee, NCGA is deeply disappointed with this setback,” said NCGA President Ron Litterer.
“The amendment makes the revenue proposal a much less attractive option to growers.”
Among the bill's other highlights:
- The conservation title extends key conservation programs and increases critical funding. This will allow CSP — now renamed the Conservation Stewardship Program — to grow at a pace of more than 13 million acres a year, which with the 15 million acres already enrolled, will equal 80 million acres in five years. The funding will also continue to allow increased enrollment in the Wetland Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Grassland Reserve Program.
- The energy title provides investments in farm-based energy by creating initiatives with financial incentives to help farmers transition into biomass crops, and supports the construction of biorefineries from cellulose ethanol with a loan guarantee program that will provide up to 80 percent of total project cost with a loan cap of $250 million.
- The nutrition title updates archaic nutrition program rules, increases Food Stamp benefit levels, and stops the erosion of benefits since 1996. It expands the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program created by Harkin to reach nearly 4.5 million children in elementary schools nationwide.
- The bill's livestock title will promote market opportunities for producers; it will protect animal health; and it will strengthen enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act. This title strengthens the mandatory Country of Origin Labeling, with minor changes.
- The rural development title provides $400 million in budget authority for a variety of initiatives that will promote economic growth and create jobs in rural communities.
- The bill also greatly increases assistance to growers of fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops.
To view a summary of bill and amendments accepted by the committee, go to http://agriculture.senate.gov/.