Vermont lawmakers press for Farm Bill
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Vermont lawmakers are taking a lead in drafting a new Farm Bill in Washington. Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch, both Democrats, have pledged to make the passage of the critical agricultural bill a priority, particularly after dairy farms in the state were dealt heavy blows last year due to weather and market fluctuations.
“Vermont’s agriculture sector is critical to our economy and to the livelihoods of hard working farmers all over the state,” Welch said last week. “It is essential that Congress do its job and pass a Farm Bill to ensure the viability of our farms and the availability of nutritious food in our schools and to families in need.”
Congress adjourned last year without renewing the 2008 Farm Bill or writing up new legislation. When that law expired, farmers in Vermont and around the country were left without critical safety nets, and dairy farmers in particular felt the loss.
“We’re hoping the Farm Bill will get passed, and we know our delegation is doing everything it can,” said Bob Foster, of the Foster Bros. Farm in Middlebury. “There may be four or five amendments or there may be 700, so it’s still an uncertain situation.”
The Farm Bill dictates federal agricultural policy, including federal subsidies programs like the Milk Income Loss Contract, or MILC, program (which reimburses dairy farmers when milk prices drop below certain levels) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). When House Republicans last summer and fall refused to bring the renewal of the Farm Bill to the floor for debate, emergency measures, including the extension of MILC, had to be implemented in December to avert a drastic spike in milk prices.
“It is not the agreement that I or any one of us would have written on our own, but it does include several important provisions that will benefit every Vermonter, our state’s economy and the nation,” Leahy said in a statement at the time.
Both houses of Congress have managed to get drafts of the legislation out of committee — a new Farm Bill left the Senate Agriculture Committee last Tuesday, May 14, and the House Agriculture Committee followed suit with its own version last Thursday, May 16. Both earned broad support from both Republicans and Democrats in committee and would cost about $100 billion annually.
Leahy’s office said the Senate’s bill would save $23 billion over the next decade and “accomplish the most far-reaching reform of U.S. agriculture policy in decades,” including replacing the MILC program with a federally supported margin insurance program and a “market stabilization” provision that would discourage producers from over-supplying milk.
In the current supply-demand system, the floor is set by an arcane formula where a small overproduction of milk triggers a tenfold drop in milk’s value per hundredweight, meaning that farmers may get paid only a fraction of their operating costs. In that situation, many farmers have no choice but to continue to overproduce in order to keep up with falling prices, which aggravates the supply-demand system even more.
Foster supports the reforms, known as the Dairy Securities Act, which he says will take an enormous amount of pressure off of producers.
“It just allows us to respond (to oversupply) like other businesses do,” he said. “If you have too many cars to sell, you stop making them for awhile.”
Many dairy farmers in Vermont were strong advocates for the Dairy Securities Act last year as well, and their representatives are in agreement.
“This new safety net approach will help us break the harmful cycle of rollercoastering milk prices, when supply and demand get too far out of sync,” Leahy said of this year’s bill.
The Senate Farm Bill at this stage includes several other features that are likely to be of interest to Vermont farmers, including a federal cost-sharing program for farms applying for organic certification, and the continued authorization of programs intended to support rural agricultural areas like the state rural development councils, rural broadband deployment and the Rural Economic Area Partnership program in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
“This is a good bill for Vermont,” Leahy said.
Farmers like Foster sure hope so — American family farms, once the backbone of rural states, are struggling more than ever.
“We’re a fifth-generation farm and every year it gets more challenging,” Foster said. “We’re trying to figure out how the next generation will continue.”
The Farm Bill does include some substantial cuts to food and agricultural programs. As of press time on Wednesday, the Senate seemed likely to cut funding to SNAP by more than $4 billion (Leahy offered an amendment to lessen the cuts, but it was not adopted). The House version of the bill would cut food stamps even more, by over $20 billion.
Welch outlined the priorities that he would push for on behalf of Vermont farmers, including dairy reform, disaster insurance for vegetable farmers, promoting organic farms and local foods programs for schools, and protecting nutrition programs from unreasonable cuts.
While the Senate bill enjoys broad bi-partisan support and was brought to the floor for debate on Monday, immediately following its passage from the Senate Agricultural Committee last week, the House bill is unlikely to be brought to the floor for several weeks.
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