The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Farm bill moving so quickly, so slowly

Action on the writing of a farm bill proposal to the super committee in charge of deficit reduction varied wildly today, even as the 12-member committee faces a Wednesday deadline to vote on the proposal, with a public markup likely before that.

“Everything is moving so quickly, yet so slowly at the same time,” said one congressional aide.

According to a Senate aide, final text of a bill is still not complete.

"But members have really come together, a lot of work has been done, and as of right now, it looks like a compromise will come together," the Senate aide said.

"The sticking point all along was inequity among commodities and regions of the country, and good work has been done to address those concerns," the Senate aide said. "Most notably, the county-level trigger for safety-net programs has been changed to farm-level. There are still some concerns with favoritism in target pricing, but the county-level trigger was by far the largest source of inequity. With that addressed, there now appears to be a clear and positive path forward."

Soybean and pulse farmers continued lobbying Congress against a proposal to raise target prices in ways they say will distort planting decisions.

Stephen Censky
Steve Censky, American Soybean Association
Noting that planting flexibility has been a hallmark of farm bills since 1990, American Soybean Association CEO Steve Censky told The Hagstrom Report that there is danger of that all being reversed.

“Once again farmers would be encouraged to plant for the government program rather than for the marketplace,” Censky said. There are ways to resolve the issue in the writing of the program, he said, while noting that the soybean growers and their allies recognize that a revenue based program may not work for all commodities.

“We are not saying that a target-priced program for certain crops is out of the question. We just don’t want to distort planting decisions and crop production,” Censky said.

The soybean growers are in alliance with corn, wheat, barley, canola, sunflower, dry pea and lentils producers. Rice, peanut and sorghum producers do not believe that a revenue insurance program will work for them and want higher target prices while cotton growers have their own program proposal.

Rich Tavoletti
Rich Tavoletti, Canned Food Alliance
Meanwhile, a lobbyist for the Canned Food Alliance, a Pittsburgh-based organization, traveled to Washington to try to get Congress to include a provision that would treat canned fruits and vegetables equally with fresh fruits and vegetables in federal feeding programs.

Rich Tavoletti, who represents a coalition of companies that make the steel for food cans and food processors, said studies have shown that canned foods have the same nutritional value as fresh.

Although advocates of fresh fruits and vegetables argue that canned foods contain unhealthy amounts of sodium, Tavoletti said in an interview that there are low-sodium canned foods. In addition, he said, “it’s tough to gauge how much salt consumers take from a salt shaker” and add to fresh vegetables.

Noting that Agriculture Department policy requires states to make it possible for participants in the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC to buy fresh fruits and vegetables but also allows the states to forbid the purchase of canned fruits and vegetables with WIC benefits, Tavoletti said he is seeking report language in the farm bill calling for “a level playing field for all forms” of foods.

Even though the farm bill process has turned so secretive, Tavoletti said, “I would be optimistic there would be an opportunity to share our report language. But this is a unique environment. I don’t know that will work out.”

Congressional aides, he said, “are in the dark and don’t know if they can help.”

The super committee deadline also did not stop Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., from introducing a bill today that he said would create jobs in the agriculture industry by enhancing local food systems and encouraging production of food for local communities.

Casey’s Growing Opportunities for Agriculture and Responding to Markets (GO FARM) Act of 2011 would authorize USDA to provide low-interest loans to rural organizations, which would in turn make small, low-interest loans to producers who grow crops for local markets like schools, stores, and farmers markets.

The Environmental Working Group called on congressional leaders to make the Congressional Budget Office score of the farm bill proposal public.