Senate tackles reforms in '12 farm bill policy
By Christine Souza
With the current federal farm bill set to expire in just a few months, the U.S. Senate last week began debate on legislation that sets national agriculture, nutrition, conservation and forestry policy known as the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012.
Representing the most significant reforms in agricultural policy in decades, the bill currently being debated ends crop support payments, streamlines and consolidates programs, and reduces the deficit by $23 billion. It also strengthens top priorities that help farmers, ranchers and small business owners continue to grow the economy.
"California farmers and the environment have a lot to gain from the Senate's version of the farm bill. It streamlines conservation programs to make them more workable for producers and provides funds to make specialty crops more competitive," said California Farm Bureau Federation National Affairs Manager Rayne Pegg. "One program that is important to California farmers that has been left out is a program to improve air quality. We are pushing for this to be included in the final version of the bill passed out of the Senate."
A large coalition of agricultural groups, including the California Farm Bureau Federation, is urging the Senate to retain a successful air quality program known as the Air Quality Initiative. The program helps farmers implement air quality projects to meet federal, state and local regulatory requirements.
"We've seen tremendous success from the program and it was so popular that (the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service) was able to fund less than one-fifth of the applications it received," CFBF President Paul Wenger said. "We still have important work to do in improving air quality, and farmers and ranchers remain ready to help."
The farm coalition said retaining the Air Quality Initiative in the 2012 Farm Bill should be a priority so more farmers and ranchers can participate. The coalition noted that the program prioritizes money for areas of the country with the highest air quality concerns, so that federal funding is used strategically to provide the most benefits for the environment, public health and stewardship efforts by farmers, ranchers and forest landowners.
In California alone, more than 1,100 farmers and ranchers partnered with NRCS on projects that reduced emissions an estimated five tons per day, which is equivalent to removing more than 408,000 cars from California roads.
Legislation that could be offered as an amendment to the farm bill is S. 3239, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012. It specifies a phased-in move to mandatory enriched cage housing, which has nearly double the space of conventional cages for all commercial layers in the U.S. It contains a special provision for California to recognize the implementation of Proposition 2 in 2015. The legislation also includes labeling requirements for eggs and new air-quality standards for hen houses.
Central to the debate this go-round is replacing direct payments with crop insurance as the new form of safety net. Some senators representing peanut and rice growers in the Southern states are opposed to the current bill and are likely to offer amendments. For California's rice, cotton, wheat and corn farmers, Pegg said, the safety net is expected to come by restructuring risk management and crop insurance. California dairy producers say they would like a more stable form of risk management that takes into account the price of feed, as well as the price earned for milk.
Officially introduced into the U.S. Senate on May 24, the Senate's version of the farm bill, S. 3240, authored by Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Ranking Member Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., is a bipartisan bill that reforms U.S. food and farm policy to save taxpayers $23 billion while strengthening and streamlining programs to continue allowing the agricultural economy to grow.
Josh Rolph, CFBF National Affairs director of international trade, farm policy, taxation and plant health, said the U.S. House of Representatives' version of the farm bill is more sympathetic to Southern state growers and recommends deeper cuts to the food stamp program.
Congressman Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and 58 colleagues sent a letter to Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., urging the inclusion of H.R. 872, the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act, in the bill currently being drafted in the House of Representatives.This bipartisan bill, which would reduce the federal regulatory burdens on farmers and other agricultural chemical users, was passed by the House last year but has yet to be approved by the Senate. It addresses a recent rule approved by the Environmental Protection Agency regarding the use of agricultural chemicals by providing a reasonable solution to agricultural chemical application near bodies of water while avoiding duplicative regulation and preserving current safe, effective pest-control standards and oversight.
"This is a bipartisan solution to an unnecessary burden placed on farmers, ranchers, mosquito control districts and others by the EPA," said Cardoza, an original co-sponsor of H.R. 872. "There is no reason for a duplicative environmental permitting process on pesticides, especially when it won't do anything to improve food safety or water quality."
The EPA is being forced by a Sixth Circuit Court decision to require federal permits for agricultural chemical applications directly on or over waters of the United States. This regulation covers an estimated 365,000 applicators—a 60 percent increase in the National Permit Discharge Elimination System program's current size.
The House will move forward on its bill within the next few weeks and Rolph said he believes both bills will be completed by the August recess. Leaders hope to reach an agreement on the farm bill by the end of the fiscal year or by the time the current farm bill expires on Sept. 30.
For more information and a summary of the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, visit the Senate Agriculture Committee's website at www.ag.senate.gov/issues/farm-bill.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.