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.”