Compromise struck on a new Farm Bill; congress offers help to dairy, maple producers

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A new federal farm bill, passed by the U.S. Senate Tuesday and expected to pass the House on Wednesday, provides some provisions that Vermont food producers will like.
The bill, which still must be signed by President Trump, makes some modest improvements in dairy programs while stopping an effort by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to label the sugar in maple syrup and pure honey as “added sugar.”
It also ends the national prohibition on hemp production, a growing industry in Vermont and here in Addison County.
“We need a farm bill and there was significant question as to whether we would have one,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who told the Messenger on Tuesday that he intends to vote for the bill. It is a compromise bill intended to reconcile differences between the versions initially passed in the House and Senate.
The compromise bill passed the Senate 87-13, with yes votes from both of Vermont’s senators. 
“After months of hard fought and often contentious negotiations, the Senate and House have come together and done what we rarely see in Washington these days. We’ve resolved our differences and reached a compromise,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who was a member of the conference committee that negotiated the final bill.
“This is a farm bill that will provide certainty to the nation’s struggling farmers; maintain food security for millions of American families; provide for cleaner waterways, better soils, protected open space, healthier forests and the preservation of family farms; make our drinking water safer; and give communities across rural America a much needed economic boost,” Leahy said.
The original House bill contained narrower work requirements for those receiving aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, which is why, Welch said, he couldn’t support it. 
SNAP already has work requirements, and there were widespread concerns among Vermont’s advocates for the hungry that the bill would increase administrative costs while depriving poor people, particularly those in industries such as retail and food service in which hours worked can fluctuate weekly, of needed assistance.
Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, had chosen to use the farm bill to cut nutrition programs by “establishing bogus work programs that really never had anything to do with work,” Welch said.
Those increased work requirements were removed from the current version of the bill.
Ending the FDA’s proposal to label the sugar in maple syrup as “added” was also a goal of Welch’s, along with Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
“This is a big victory for us,” said Welch. “Thousands of Vermonters filed comments about how this was a solution in search of a problem.”
In addition, the bill retains the Acer Access and Development Program program created in 2014 to support the maple industry with research and education. The program had been targeted for elimination in the original House bill.
As for Addison County’s biggest agriculture product, milk, the bill will lower premiums for the Margin Protection Program, now renamed Dairy Risk Coverage (DRC), for the first 5 million pounds of milk.
With DRC, farmers can insure the margin between what they pay for feed and what they are paid for their milk. Changes pushed by Leahy will allow farmers to insure a larger margin than before and to also enroll in other USDA insurance programs at the same time.
Farmers who were barred from enrolling in margin protection this spring because they were already enrolled in Livestock Gross Margin Insurance for Dairy (LGM-Dairy) will be able to retroactively sign up for the margin protection program and receive benefits.
Farmers will also have the option of taking a 75 percent credit or a 50 percent refund of premiums paid to the margin protection program in 2015-2017 when the program failed to provide the anticipated support.
A dairy product donation program will allow farmers to donate milk rather dump it. In just the Northeast, 170 million pounds of milk were dumped last year.
The bill also authorizes incentives to increase fluid milk consumption and assist new businesses in the dairy industry including farmers and cheesemakers.
However, the bill does not contain the thing many say dairy farmers most need — a supply management program. 
“We really need a much more comprehensive reform that includes supply management,” said Welch. 
The bill does include better protection for dairy farmers and provides some stability, Welch noted, but added that a supply management program needs to be created before the next farm bill, which will be in 2023.
It is not just dairy farmers who are struggling, he said. Other farmers are also seeing declines in prices for their goods, consolidation and overproduction. 
The importance of the local farm economy is immense, said Welch, pointing to its role as an employer and economic engine that also keeps land open. 
The state of rural America, said Welch, is “an issue that just won’t wait.”
The farm bill does provide funding for several conservation programs which local farmers use to help pay for water quality projects including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Reserve Program. Regional Conservation Partnerships will be required to use at least 50 percent of funding for state or multi-state conservation efforts. Locally, the partnership program has brought in millions in federal funding for water quality efforts.
The bill maintains existing organics programs while increasing funding for research and providing better oversight of international organics, according to Welch.
Rural development programs used throughout Vermont as well as the Northern Border Regional Commission were reauthorized, along with funding for water infrastructure.
In an example of the twists and turns of passing legislation, the Pet and Women Safety Act, of which Leahy is a co-sponsor, was incorporated into the farm bill. It allows for increased penalties for domestic abusers who commit or threaten violence against pets as a way of terrorizing the pets’ owners.

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