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Berginski: What’s in this farm bill?

By Staff | Feb 14, 2014

I know I’ve written about this subject at least four times, including an article in last week’s paper. It may be the last time for at least a few years that farm bills will be a topic on my weekly column’s radar. Quite a few in the Senate and House of Representatives are certainly hoping this is the last time for a few years that they’ll have to negotiate one. A lot of the heavy-hitters on both sides in both houses’ ag committees are tired, let-down, and at least one of them already has a primary challenger. Only a few who negotiated this bill attended its signing in Michigan, rather than at the White House. What’s in this bill that has disappointed some of them? What’s in this bill that has also disappointed special interests, and a national business, as well?

One of the biggest reasons for gridlock was the SNAP program. Originally Republicans wanted $40 billion cut from the program, while Democrats only wanted, at most, a tenth of that. Instead, both sides agreed on $8 billion, which isn’t a middle ground by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a compromise.

According to a New York Times article, that compromise translates to 850,000 households losing $90, or 34 meals, per month. The bill does provide $200 million to finance food banks, but many anti-hunger groups say it won’t be enough to counter any increase in demand for food. In a recent CNN Money article, national retail giant Wal-Mart announced that cuts to the food stamp program that automatically took place in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2013 hurt its bottom line, and the cuts in the farm bill, combined with bad weather, are doing the same in the first quarter of FY 2014.

Direct payments, which cost about $5 billion a year, were also cut. This was another toxic issue for two reasons: 1. Farm incomes have increased; 2. Farmers would get these payments whether or not they actually grew crops. In their place, lawmakers have put in a $9 billion a year government-subsidized crop insurance program. In the same NY Times article, groups calling themselves “budget watchdogs” have said that it’s swapping one subsidy for another one that’s more generous.

Certain ag interest groups, particularly meat and poultry groups, aren’t fond of provisions requiring COOL, or Country of Origin Labeling. These groups have wanted that part delayed because labeling would be costly. According to an article on www.foodsafetynews.com, the American Meat Institute and other groups have been emphasizing that COOL is a program that informs consumers. They emphasize that it isn’t a food safety or trace program. The National Cattleman’s Beef Association’s president Scott George said in a press conference that a Kansas State University study found that most consumers don’t actually look at origin labels when deciding what to buy at the grocery store. This comes despite 90 percent of Americans surveyed by the Consumer Federation of America saying they want country of origin labeling, and 87 percent wanting labels with where animals were born, raised and processed.

While some editorial boards have praised the Senate’s and House’s efforts, other outlets aren’t pleased. An article in last week’s issue of The Economist said that the bill “gives bipartisanship a bad name”.

Personally, I find it to be imperfect legislation. Eighty percent of it has nothing to do with farmers, and they’re the ones who feed us as a result of their labor-regardless of whether or not we’re on welfare. (Just think, without farmers you wouldn’t be able to have popcorn and pop at the movie theater, bar customers wouldn’t be able to have adult beverages, and smokers wouldn’t be able to have cigarettes. Without dairy and meat cattle producers, steaks at 3rd Street Station or even a milkshake at Rockin’ Relics wouldn’t even be at play.) Of course, in these divisive times, if both farm and food stamp legislation were treated as separate matters, it’s possible one or both wouldn’t even be given the time of day in Congress.

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