Published August 25, 2012 in the Rutland Herald
Push resumes on stalled farm bill
If the newest farm bill doesn’t make it out of the U.S. House of Representatives, Vermont’s dairy farmers will be in a bad way, says one federal official.
The current farm bill, signed in 2008, expires at the end of September, and Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan is sounding the alarm about its prospects in the House.
The new bill sets policy on agriculture, nutrition, conservation and forestry across the country. It passed the Senate in June and the House Agriculture Committee in July.
Getting the bill approved in the House has been another story. One of the biggest parts of the bill is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The Congressional Budget Office says the cost of the bill over 10 years will be about $969 billion. Of that, $768.2 billion would go to SNAP, according to the budget office.
In passing its bill, the Senate cut $4 billion out of SNAP, but Merrigan said House leaders want to cut $33 billion from the program.
“That has just derailed deliberations in the House. While they have a bipartisan committee that passed the bill, the leadership is stalling in terms of bringing the bill to the floor,” Merrigan said Friday from Washington, D.C.
She said no vote on the bill is scheduled. The House is to be back in session Sept. 10 after a recess of several weeks.
Merrigan said both the expiring and new bills have important programs for Vermont dairy farmers.
One that will end when the old bill expires, called the Milk Income Loss Contract, compensates dairy farmers when milk prices fall below a certain level. The new bill proposes to replace it with a voluntary program that would help producers when milk prices are low and feed costs high. It would reimburse farmers when the difference between what they’re paying and what they’re making exceeds a certain amount.
Merrigan said that with milk prices the lowest they have been since 2009, dairy farmers need all the help they can get.
“We’re already seeing people liquidate herds across the country, so we know it’s not a good situation,” Merrigan said.
She said the new farm bill would also help those who make specialty crops, such as maple syrup, with an insurance program that would compensate producers if they have a bad season — as last spring was for sugarmakers.
Merrigan worked six years for Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy while he was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
She disagrees with those who say the government should not be helping farmers and should let them fail. She said that making sure farmland stays farmland is important for water quality and the economy as a whole.
“For about five decades, agriculture has contributed to a positive balance of trade with other countries,” Merrigan said. “We are an exporting powerhouse, and it makes a big difference in our economy.”
She added that one in 12 jobs in the country is connected to agriculture, whether it is working at a local co-op or the Agway down the street or as a mechanic who repairs equipment.
Merrigan said she is trying to get the word out about the bill so people who have nothing to do with agriculture see how this bill could affect them.
“It’s an uphill climb to get people to better understand why this matters to everybody, whether you are living in New York City or in the center of Burlington or Montpelier, as much as it does if you live in rural communities,” she said.