House farm bill gets OK from NE farmers group

Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 30, 2014. By Richie Davis.

The compromise, nearly $100 billion-a-year national farm bill approved Wednesday by the House of Representatives is getting thumbs-up from many farmers in the region, although Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, and other Massachusetts lawmakers, voted against it because it would cut about 1 percent from the food stamp program.

The measure, which had been held up by more than two years of partisan differences over food stamps and farm policy, was approved 251-166 and now moves on to the Senate, where there is speculation it could pass this week. President Barack Obama has said he will pass the bill if it reaches his desk, according to Press Secretary Jay Carney.

McGovern, who represents parts of Franklin and Hampshire counties, said after the vote, “There are some good things in the bill for Massachusetts agriculture, but I voted ‘no’ because I will not vote for a farm bill that makes hunger worse in America.”

The farm bill, which preserves most farm subsidies, had backing from Republican leaders, even though it makes smaller cuts to the $80 billion Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program than the 5 percent they had sought.

The final savings in the cost of the food stamp program would be generated by cracking down on some states that seek to boost individual food stamp benefits by giving people small amounts of federal heating assistance that they don’t need. That heating assistance, sometimes as low as $1 per person, triggers higher benefits, and some critics see that practice as circumventing the law. The bill that was passed Wednesday would require states to give individual recipients at least $20 in heating assistance before a higher food stamp benefit could be authorized.

Some Democrats said the food stamp cut still is too high. McGovern said the cut will be harmful on top of automatic cuts to food stamps that already went into place in November.

All nine Massachusetts Democrats voted against the bill, except for Rep. Stephen Lynch, who was absent.

Farmers weigh in

The New England Farmers Union issued a statement saying the organization was satisfied that the five-year authorizing legislation had finally advanced and would keep intact all of its priority programs “at record levels,” in the words of its president, Roger Noonan.

“The farm bill is promising for New England producers,” the statement read. “The bill renews support for local and regional food systems, including the farmers market and local foods promotion program and related initiatives. The bill includes support for conservation programs including the Environmental Quality Incentive Program and provides a strong crop insurance title that links insurance to conservation compliance. It retains country of origin labeling laws that provide consumers with information they want on the source of their food, and provides nearly $4 billion for livestock disaster assistance.”

The single priority the bill failed to support was a voluntary dairy “supply-management” provision that protected against dramatic price drops but would have called for participants to cut production when there’s an oversupply of milk. A compromise includes a two-tiered pricing system, with lower premiums for smaller farmers.

“This eleventh-hour deal was not what we wanted,” said Noonan, but he said that overall, the bill includes “a lot of good stuff.” And even though the New England delegation voted against the measure, the 1,300-member organization feels “they were instrumental in key provisions that affect New England farmers,” such as grant programs for fruit and vegetable growers, for organic producers and for farmers markets.

“SNAP is a big issue for Massachusetts,” Noonan said. “We felt represented by Jim McGovern’s representation on the farm bill and seeing that farmers get the justice they deserved.”

Richard Bonano, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, said, “Overall, we’re pleased. We think there are protections in place for our dairy farmers. While we were disappointed that supply management is not in the new farm bill and we don’t like cuts in the food and nutrition programs, we support the version that came out.”

He added, “We look at it and say the new farm bill moves away from direct payments and strengthens conservation and insurance programs, even broadening those programs to include specialty crops, and help us with some of our hot-button issues — helping local farmers prosper, working on food safety issues, helping new and beginning farmers, all of the components that our industry in Mass. is interested in.”

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture Executive Director Philip Korman said that while many parts of the measure are “not good,” the compromise represents “a milestone on the road” that will be better than the uncertainty farmers faced with remaining in limbo.

But while it improves support for crop insurance programs that promote conservation and promotes locally produced and organic products, he lamented the SNAP cuts.

“We want to make sure that all people have access to local food,” said Korman, adding that the bill does include encouragements for people to use SNAP benefits at farmers markets.

(This article makes use of material from the Associated Press.)