Proposed 2012 Farm Bill would hurt food stamps program, create insurance program for dairy farmers

Rep. Peter Welch, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Patrick Leahy got together Monday to talk about the farm bill passed through the house in June. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Rep. Peter Welch, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Patrick Leahy got together Monday to talk about the farm bill passed through the house in June. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Vermont’s congressional delegation held a press conference on Monday to explain how the 2012 Farm Bill could impact the state. The legislation, passed by the Senate on June 21 and still pending House approval, includes a broad array of rural community and food issues including food stamps, dairy market stabilization and wildlife protection.

Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders both said they were happy to have voted for the bill despite misgivings about $4.5 billion in cuts to the federal food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, over 10 years.

“Clearly, as Senator Leahy will tell you, the bill that was passed was not the bill that we would have written, but it is a good bill and I was proud to have voted for it,” Sanders said.

The legislation, as it progressed through the Senate, had well over 200 proposed amendments, 73 of which were taken to the floor for a vote. Sanders proposed a provision that would have allowed states to require foods made with genetically modified materials to be labeled. That amendment was struck down in a 26-73 vote.

The two main talking points for Vermont’s delegates were the cuts to SNAP and a new dairy program that would help stabilize the often volatile dairy market and provide insurance against farmers’ market losses.

The dairy market has been volatile in recent years – Leahy brought a graph to the Senate floor to illustrate this point – because, the senator said, farmers tend to increase production when prices drop in an attempt to bring in more money. The practice floods the dairy market, causing prices to drop further in a vicious downward cycle. The bill includes disincentives for overproduction of milk and insurance against market price drops that are designed to help farmers maintain profit margins. The proposal would lower insurance payments to farmers who increase production when prices go down.

“At the end of the day, in my view, we are going to need supply management because when prices go down and farmers breed more and more cows, milk more and more cows, that just drives the price down even further,” Leahy said.

The $4.5 billion Senate reductions to SNAP over a decade period will put a dent in the program, delegates said. The real threat, they said, lies in a more drastic proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and his allies in the House. Ryan’s proposed budget lays out significantly bigger cuts.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., explained the scope of the proposal. “In the House, we start out with a Ryan budget that passed the House of Representatives that didn’t cut it by $4 billion, Bernie, it cut it by $134 billion,” Welch said. “I mean that’s just, like, unbelievable. It’s not acceptable. But that’s the environment we have in the House.”

The 2011 budget for food stamps was $78 billion.

Angela Smith-Dieng, advocacy manager at 3SquaresVT, said the $4.5 billion reduction would not immediately impact Vermont’s SNAP beneficiaries. One in six Vermonters use food stamps.

“If a household receives a small [Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program] benefit, then it can trigger a higher 3SquaresVT benefit,” she said. The farm bill as passed in the House would double the amount of heating assistance required to trigger SNAP.

Smith-Dieng said the program would provide enough benefits to trigger SNAP next year even if the threshold doubles, but she doesn’t know if that would be sustainable in the future.

“If we were to see more cuts than the $4.5 billion, we would definitely see an impact in Vermont,” she said.

Welch said the Democrats strategy is to bring Ryan’s proposed $134 billion reductions down as much as possible in the House and then get senators to talk it down to their level in conference committee.

“The big challenge that I have and my colleagues have is to try to get that number down as close as we can to the Senate and then make a decision about going into conference and let Bernie and Patrick use their muscle to protect nutrition and save the dairy program,” Welch said.

The proposed dairy program is also under fire in the House.

“Mr. (Robert) Goodlatte from Virginia has an amendment in to get rid of the market stabilization program, and we’ve got to fight that back,” Welch said. “So job one for me and my colleagues will be to resist that effort to strip the ag bill of that absolutely crucial market stabilization piece.”

While Vermont’s delegation in Washington is fighting for the bill, Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, a Montpelier-based agriculture advocacy group, said much of the legislation is irrelevant to the state.

“In general, it deals with large commodity agriculture, and most of what’s in it is addressing the needs and wants of that part of agriculture and has no bearing on Vermont whatsoever,” Stander said.

There are, however, a few exceptions to that rule, Stander said. Rural Vermont would have liked to see Sanders’ GMO labeling amendment pass, as well as a ban on livestock ownership by meat packing companies and expanded funded for traditional (non-biotech) crop research.

Despite some initial disappointments, Stander said she hasn’t written off the bill yet, and anything could happen in the House.

“There’s no way of knowing how it’s going to turn out. If the Senate had over 200 amendments originally proposed,” she said, “Lord knows how many the House is going to have.”

Taylor Dobbs

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  • James Maroney

    It is a curious historical artifact that the food stamp program (SNAP) should be folded so inextricably into the “farm” bill since farming, the tilling of soil to grow food stuffs, has only a distant relationship to food, which is a product made from food stuffs. The two things are as distinct from one another as coal and electricity, as yellow paint and pencils or as cotton and shirts. That the farm bill now comprises 80% for food assistance, or what those who manipulate the bill cleverly refer to as “nutrition” programs, is a testament to how far farm state legislators are willing to go to gin up urban support for the bill’s central purpose, which is to exact half a trillion of the taxpayer’s dollars to subsidize farm equipment manufacturers, fertilizer and seed companies, distributors and ethanol manufacturers. This bill not only has nothing to do with farmers, “farm” is only the public relations term given to that through which this largess passes on its way to its true beneficiaries.

    There is a lot of busy talk about the income leveling provisions of the dairy title. Everyone knows that conventional Vermont dairy farmers are failing and the fault is popularly thought to be price volatility: so the bill offers willing participants the opportunity to buy profit margin insurance, for which the government pays the lion’s share of the premiums.

    The bill recognizes that dairy farmers increase production and drive their own prices down. To counter that inclination, the bill would require participating farmers to cut production when prices are low.

    But by the time prices have fallen, “progressive” farmers have already added new capacity. Cutting milk production will therefore only temporarily affect capacity but drive small farmers out of the business. As soon as the restriction is lifted, the large farmers ramp up again, driving prices back down. Price volatility is a stalking horse for the main objective: to leave the production of cheap, surplus milk undisturbed. The bill cannot effectively reduce supply while leaving in place the yield boosting technology and capacity that farmers use to drive over production in the first place.

    And now we get to the most serious flaw in the bill: Republican legislators have achieved $23 billion in “savings” not only by slashing spending for “nutrition” about which you will read much, but by slashing $5 billion from soil and water conservation, about which you will read little.

    And so it goes. You may be wondering why, after a thirty year run, farmers were content to allow the federal ethanol subsidy to expire. Do not fret: the farm bill increases the portion of ethanol that goes into a gallon of gas from 10% to 15%, a 50% increase. This is great news for farmers in Iowa, who are enjoying unprecedented government support even as they push the boundaries of the Conservation Reserve, taking marginal and wetland they previously agreed to take out of production, back in.

    All things considered, the senate version of the 2012 farm bill diminishes social programs in favor of production and encourages farm expansion and consolidation at the expense of soil and water quality. The house will unquestionably make the bill even more generous to producers and more exiguous to social programs. In Vermont our farmers grow no shell corn (they chop it for feed), we make no ethanol and they get no more “safety net” from the ironically named Milk Income Loss Contract. The farm bill will have the same impact upon parochial farming as the F35 will upon our parochial defense. Vermont, having virtually no farm equipment manufacturers, no seed or fertilizer or herbicide manufacturers and little if any food manufacturers gains nothing from the bill, which begs the question of why our congressional delegation is so enthusiastic about it.

  • MJ Farmer

    James, What would you think of a bill that only allowed milk or 100% juice with food stamp $? The junk food that is being purchased with food stamp $ is not nutrition and is adding to the obeisity epidemic. Go to the supermarket on the first of the month and witness the “nutrition” being purchased.

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