Farm bill urgency

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., on Wednesday pushed for passage of a five-year farm bill before the Senate’s Memorial Day recess. Casey said the inclusion of a crop insurance provision could aid farmers hit by the recent frost.

“Passing a five-year farm bill will give Pennsylvania’s agriculture producers the certainty they need to grow their businesses and create jobs,” Casey said. “This week’s frost across Pennsylvania is a reminder of the urgency Congress should act with in coming together in a bipartisan way to get the farm bill to the president’s desk.”

The agriculture sector represents one of Pennsylvania’s largest drivers of economic growth, Casey said.

In Blair County, for example, there are 523 farms totaling 87,434 acres, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture from U.S. Department of Agriculture, the latest figures available.

On Tuesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved the farm bill in a 15-5 vote, moving it on to the full Senate for consideration. The committee’s version would cut spending while also creating new subsidies for farmers.

Mark O’Neill, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman, said the farm bill needs to be passed sooner than later.

“The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau is pleased that the Senate Agriculture Committee has advanced a farm bill that places a high priority on crop insurance as a risk management tool and includes additional insurance opportunities for fruit and vegetable growers,” O’Neill said. “We are hopeful that the bipartisan legislation, which includes a flexible crop insurance program and a streamlined conservation program that focuses on working lands, will move swiftly though the full Senate.”

The Senate bill calls for roughly $2.4 billion a year in cuts, while a House version that was to be considered Wednesday would save $4 billion out of almost $100 billion annually. Those cuts include more than $600 million in yearly savings from across-the-board cuts that took effect earlier this year.

Much of the savings in the House and Senate bills comes from eliminating annual subsidies, also known as direct payments, which are frequently criticized because they aren’t tied to production or crop prices. Part of that savings would go toward deficit reduction, but the rest of the money would create new programs and raise subsidies for some crops.

In order to boost savings, the Senate bill would cut $400 million out of almost $80 billion spent annually on food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The House bill would cut $2 billion annually from the program and rewrite policy that allows some people who already receive benefits to automatically receive food stamps.

Balancing the cutbacks important to conservatives with maintaining the safety net that farmers have relied on for decades will be key to getting the bill passed before current farm programs expire Sept. 30.

This is the third year in a row that farm-state lawmakers have tried to push the bill through. Though it passed the Senate, the House declined to take up the bill last year after conservatives in that chamber objected to the bill’s cost and insisted on higher cuts to food stamps.

House leaders have given supporters more optimism this year as they have said they plan to put the measure on the floor this summer.

Longtime critics of farm policy say that even with the belt-tightening, the legislation is still a giveaway to the largest farms, which tend to receive the largest shares of the subsidies.