M/cloudy
67°
M/cloudy
Hi 66° | Lo 43°

Twin State Reps. Praise Farm Bill

Washington, D.C. — After years of setbacks, a nearly $100 billion-a-year compromise farm bill cleared the House on Wednesday despite strong opposition from conservatives who sought a bigger cut in food stamps.

The final vote was 251-166. The five-year bill, which preserves generous crop subsidies, now heads to the Senate, where approval seems certain. The White House said President Obama would sign it.

The final product averts deep cuts sought by Republicans in the federal food stamp program and ends direct payments to farmers — a controversial provision under the previous farm bill in which farmers received federal subsidies regardless of their output.

U.S. Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt., Annie Kuster, D-N.H., and Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., all voted for the measure.

In a news release, Welch called the bill “far from perfect” and said it “falls short of all that Vermont wanted,” but said America and Vermont needed a bill to pass.

“It is a significant improvement over the status quo and will provide much needed relief to Vermont’s dairy farmers, vegetable growers, and the organics and maple syrup industries,” Welch said.

Kuster released a similar statement, calling the bill a “true compromise.”

“This legislation isn’t perfect,” she said, “but it is a true compromise that will provide our agricultural producers with the support they need to thrive and continue providing Granite Staters with fresh, nutritious, and safe food.”

Conservatives had stymied efforts to pass a farm bill in the House last year, arguing in part that agriculture subsidy programs should be considered separately from food stamps provided under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Some also called for a controversial work requirement to be included for food stamp recipients, a proposal that helped unite Democrats against the plan.

Food stamp cuts were reduced from $40 billion in the House bill to $8 billion in the compromise bill.

Help for Vt. Farmers

The compromise passed Wednesday would create a dairy insurance program to protect farmers against dramatic swings in feed prices that “too often have driven (farmers) off their farms,” Welch said in his statement, and includes steep discounts on insurance premiums for small dairy farms.

The bill also would help limit overproduction of milk and allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to intervene in the markets if dairy prices drop too low by purchasing dairy products for use at local food banks.

Other provisions that Welch championed or supported in the bill include disaster insurance for vegetable growers, the creation of a pilot program in Vermont to promote local produce in school lunches, and support of the maple sugaring and organic farms and foods industries.

Corey Chapman, a dairy farmer with 50 milkers in Tunbridge, said he was hopeful that the bill could be a step in the right direction.

Chapman, 34, grew up around dairy farmers, but his grandfather sold his herd when Chapman was a teenager. About two years ago, after Chapman returned to Vermont following 12 years in the military, he decided to get back into the dairy business.

But, he said, the finances aren’t always easy.

“Hopefully this will help all of that stuff, because it is tough,” Chapman said. “Farmers are getting older and we’re kind of a new generation that’s coming along and we’re in debt, whereas generations past, they weren’t. And now, just to get into the industry, you’re almost in extreme debt just to start out with.”

Chapman said he’s felt that many subsidies for dairy farms in the past have gone to larger dairy farms, and he’s hopeful that dairy farms in Central Vermont, which are usually smaller, could benefit from the bill. He also supports provisions that would prevent the flooding of dairy markets, he said.

“There’s got to be someone looking ahead and trying to figure it out,” he said.

In Bradford, Vt., dairy farmer Doug Miller, 73, said he was keeping one eye on bill’s progress — but added the he didn’t “figure anything they do in Washington” would affect Vermonters too much.

He said he felt the food stamps program may be worthy of funding, but should not be run by the Department of Agriculture.

“I don’t see the reason why it is, never did,” he said.

Boost for Hemp

Another big winner in the farm bill was hemp, marijuana's nonintoxicating sister plant.

For the first time, the farm bill would allow nine states — including Vermont — to use hemp for research and academic purposes.

Legalizing hemp, even on a limited basis, would give new ammunition to pro-marijuana supporters, who want to scrap the federal ban against pot. Both are classified as controlled substances, long prohibited by Congress.

“Five years from now, if the hemp industry goes the way that it should go, it could create thousands and thousands of jobs,” said Craig Lee, a board member of the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association in Lexington.

Bill Reflects Consensus

In a final speech urging his colleagues to support the measure, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., said the final result sends a positive message to the American people at a time when most are fed up with dysfunction in the capital.

“This bill may not have exactly everything my friends on the right would want, or my friends on the left would want,” he said. “It represents making the process work. Achieving consensus. Putting into place policies that are better than what were there before.”

He also acknowledged the difficult path it had taken to reauthorize the 2008 farm bill.

“This farm bill might not be quite defined by most people as a miracle,” he said. “But it’s amazingly close.”

The $956 billion bill extends through 2018. Sponsors, citing a Congressional Budget Office estimate, said the legislation reduces the deficit by $23 billion, based on the difference between new spending levels and those that would have been in place by extending the previous farm bill.

More than $18 billion of the savings comes from farm programs, while $8 billion is provided by cuts to the food stamp program. Some Democrats still opposed the bill, calling the food stamp cuts too deep.

“Some have rationalized these cuts,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said during the floor debate. “Some have tried to explain them away as nothing but closing loopholes. They are wrong. People are going to be hurt.”

Still, 89 Democrats supported the measure, joining 162 Republicans to help send the measure to the Senate. Of the 166 “no” votes, 103 were from Democrats and 63 from Republicans, largely reflecting the objections of each party’s base.

For those seeking reform of farm programs, the legislation would eliminate a $4.5 billion-a-year farm subsidy called direct payments, which are paid to farmers whether they farm or not. But the bill nonetheless would continue to heavily subsidize major crops — corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton — while shifting many of those subsidies toward more politically defensible insurance programs. That means farmers would have to incur losses before they could get a payout.

The bill would save around $1.65 billion annually overall, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The amount was less than the $2.3 billion annual savings the agriculture committees originally projected for the bill.

Material from the Associated Press and McClatchy was used in this report. Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.