Senate's farm bill remains target for budget cutters

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WALLA WALLA -- The federal farm bill wending its way through Congress promises to benefit local growers through support for research and trade programs, but observers noted the measure still has a long way to go before it becomes law.

U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., hailed passage of the Senate's version of bill and the bipartisan support shown by the 64-35 vote June 21.

"Today is a big win for Washington farming and trade jobs," said Cantwell. "This bill invests in cutting-edge research to support increased crop yields for apples, potatoes, cherries and other specialty crops grown in Washington. And it helps farmers to sell more products overseas through Washington ports."

Cantwell said she was especially pleased the Pulse School Pilot amendment was included. The amendment will provide $10 million through 2017 to help boost use of peas, lentils, beans and chickpeas in school meals. The products are a significant Walla Walla Valley crops.

Two other programs expected to aid growers of specialty crops, which include apples and sweet cherries, are the Market Access Program and research to find alternatives to traditional insecticides for controlling codling moth, a pest that threatens apple growers in the region.

The bill would establish five years of policy for U.S. agricultural programs. It is a prime target for budget cutters because of near-record farm profits and the record expenditures on food stamps, according to a Bloomberg News report.

Net farm income this year will be $91.7 billion, the second-highest ever, according to the Department of Agriculture. Spending on food stamps reached a record $75.7 billion last year, double the level of four years ago and the USDA's largest expense.

The bill covers programs that feed families in need, improve air and soil quality, encourage rural development and provide a safety net for farmers who suffer crop or income loss. Production subsidies, which may reach $11 billion this year, aid agribusinesses such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill by lowering the costs of their raw materials, Bloomberg reported.

Murray called the farm bill "a victory for Washington state," but also said she was concerned about cuts in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds, which "thousands of Washingtonians are relying on ... during these tough economic times."

But other provisions affecting direct payments to farmers and crop insurance were not the simple budget-cutting measures people may think, said Nat Webb, a Walla Walla County farmer. Although the public has the impression farmers are doing well due to higher prices for their commodities, that view is misleading.

"Currently the price of wheat has settled at a new higher level, but unfortunately our costs have also risen along with those prices," he said. "Today a farmer spends a substantial amount of money to raise a crop and pricing that crop at a profitable level is very difficult. There is a good deal of risk, and the crop insurance program helps farmers cope with some of those risks.

"The public's perception of farmer income isn't correct, but many of our legislators are out to eliminate farm subsidies because of this misunderstanding," Webb said in an email.

"Most farmers hope to retain the current crop insurance program to help them manage some of the risks they face. The provision to replace some of the lost revenue isn't nearly as attractive as the direct payment provision that it replaced, but I guess we are lucky to have some type of assistance in cases where we have a loss situation.

"Subsidy provisions such as the commodity loan and target price protection were also eliminated," Webb wrote, "but in reality they haven't functioned for some time because they were set at artificially low levels.

"People need to realize that the subsidy part of the farm program was designed to insure an adequate supply of food at reasonable prices. Elimination of this program can result in a less dependable food supply and significant price change. I often thought that if you think it is difficult waiting in line to buy gas try standing in line waiting to buy food" he said.

As many other observers also noted, Webb also warned "the Senate is just one of the three bodies that have to deal with the farm bill. The House of Representatives has to address it and the president will need to sign it.

"There is still a good deal of ground to cover before it becomes law," he said.

The House Agriculture Committee's Republican chairman, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, said the panel "will consider a balanced proposal that saves taxpayers billions of dollars, recognizes the diversity of American agriculture, respects the risks producers face, and preserves the tools necessary for food production," he was quoted by Bloomberg.

Lucas said his committee will begin debate on its version of the legislation on July 11. Congress must pass a bill by Sept. 30 to keep programs from expiring.

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