WASHINGTON Californians score some wins, losses and split-decisions in the big Senate farm bill set for long-awaited approval Monday.
The state’s fruit and vegetable growers will still harvest research and block grant funding. Cotton, rice and wheat growers will lose one subsidy, but keep another. Food stamp recipients will face tighter standards, but not as much as House conservatives want.
In other words, the farm bill that started out at 1,010 pages before the Senate began amending it is a compromise package akin to others that have passed before it.
“We are at a point where we just have to get people positively working together,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said this week.
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California is the nation’s leading agricultural state, with farm-related revenues that reached a record $43 billion. in 2011. Nonetheless, it has an unusual relationship to the farm bills that Congress typically passes every five years. While the traditional commodity subsidies for which farm bills are famous are not trivial in California, reaching $154 million last year, according to the Environmental Working Group, they do not dominate as in some Midwestern states.
Starting with the 2008 farm bill, though, California’s specialty crop producers have carved out their own pieces of the pie. The Senate’s latest bill largely continues several specialty grant, research and trade promotion programs that benefit California’s fruits and vegetables producers.
Formally called the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act, the legislation seems destined for straight-forward Senate passage Monday. On Thursday, over the objections of some stalwart conservatives and Southern Republicans, the Senate overwhelmingly voted 75-22 to cut off debate.
The expected Senate approval will move the action over to the House, where lawmakers hope to finish their own version before the July 4 recess. Prospects for a final bill then being negotiated appear reasonable, but there are no guarantees. During the previous Congress, the Senate finished its farm bill, but the Republican-controlled House did not act.
The farm bill’s sheer cost worries some. The Senate version would run an estimated $955 billion over 10 years if its policies remain in place that long. The House bill, approved last month by the Agriculture Committee, would cost an estimated $940 billion, with more savings coming from food stamp cuts.
Specific policies also trigger concerns, and both the House and Senate bills regularly incite familiar policy debates that often have familiar outcomes.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for instance, pushed an amendment that would have blocked tobacco farmers from the subsidized federal crop insurance program.
“Tobacco is not just another crop,” she said during Senate debate. “It is the largest preventable cause of cancer deaths in this country. We subsidize tobacco crop insurance. We should not. This country should become tobacco-free. It will save lives.”
The Senate rejected Feinstein’s amendment, 52-44.
Other senators failed in an amendment to revise the controversial sugar program, which props up domestic sugar prices, in part, by constraining imports. The sugar program matters to California’s sugar beet producers, who grow their crop on about 25,000 acres in the state, and it divided the state’s senators; Feinstein supported the changes and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer opposed them.
“(It) is an outdated program that offers a sweet deal to a small group of sugar growers and processors at the expense of too many other American businesses and at the expense of American consumers,” declared Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., during Senate debate.
The Senate bill, like its House counterpart, continues at $200 million a year, the Market Access Program extensively used by California farm organizations. The program regularly funds overseas marketing and trade promotion activities by groups like the California Prune Board, California Table Grape Commission and San Francisco-based Wine Institute, among others.
The Senate and House bills, likewise, continue a Specialty Crop Block Grant program favored by Californians, with the Senate bill offering $70 million a year. The state has received roughly $18 million annually from the program. It has recently funded efforts like expanding a farmers’ market in West Modesto, boosting a “California Grown” school lunch program in Yolo County and initiating a bilingual irrigation training program in western Fresno County.
A Specialty Crop Research Institute that has proven useful for scientists at the University of California at Davis and other institutions would also be continued, starting at $25 million annually and eventually rising to $50 million.