Illinois’ Agricultural Future at Stake in Farm Bill Debate

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Both the U.S. Senate and House Agriculture Committees held their respective committee “markup” sessions and approved their own versions of a new farm bill during the end of May. The legislation is now up for debate by the full Senate and House.

The House Agriculture Committee’s bill is noticeable for its deep cuts to SNAP (food stamps) and an its ending of the often maligned Direct Payment Subsidy program. Unfortunately, beyond the elimination of direct payments, very little in the way of reform was included in the House Farm Bill — no conservation compliance, no crop insurance subsidy limits for the wealthiest farmers, no commodity subsidy limitations for the wealthiest farmers and inadequate support for local food, farmers markets and organic agriculture. On the positive side, the House bill includes solid support for beginning farmers and ranchers and a new whole farm insurance program targeted to diversified farms.

The Senate Agriculture Committee’s bill includes smaller cuts to SNAP, an end to direct payment subsidies, and some historic reforms, such as the re-attachment of conservation compliance provisions to crop insurance subsidies, limitation to commodity subsidies, an end to loopholes within the subsidy programs that allowed wealthy land owners not actively engaged in farming to collect huge subsidies, and solid support for local food and farmers markets.

To read more about the committee “markup” session, amendments that were adopted or rejected, and the committee bills that were passed out of committee click here.

Following the markup, the Senate began full floor consideration of the 2013 Farm Bill focusing mostly on opening statements. A number of amendments were debated and a few were voted on, most notably, the Durbin-Coburn amendment, which Illinois Stewardship Alliance strongly supports. That amendment is championed by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and reduces crop insurance premium subsidies by a modest amount for those farmers who have annual adjusted gross incomes of over $750,000, or $1.5 million for most married couples. Limiting subsidies to the wealthiest of farmers helps keep farmland prices from skyrocketing, which makes it difficult for small and medium sized farmers to stay on the land, and for beginning farmers and ranchers to access land. The Durbin-Coburn Amendment also saves taxpayers $1.3 billion over the next ten years.

After a week-long Memorial Day recess, the U.S. Senate returned to D.C. in June. One of the first orders of business was the continued consideration of amendments to the 2013 Farm Bill, the goal being to finish with amendments and pass a bill by the end of the first full week in June. One of those amendments, introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (#1088), focuses on local and regional food system development, and providing adequate funding for local food and farmers market programs.

Another important pending amendment is the King-Tester amendment (#1042). This amendment ensures that only foods intended to be regulated under Food Safety Modernization Act – fresh produce and foods that are manufactured, held, packed or processed – would be counted in calculating gross and direct food sales. Right now all food is covered meaning that for a diversified farm that sells field corn, meats, and eggs in addition to fresh produce would have all their sales not just fresh produce which is the only category of items in that list that is regulated by FSMA be included in the calculations of whether or not they qualify for the FSMA small farm local food exemption of gross sales under $500,000.  Grains, meats, and eggs are already regulated by the USDA and should continue to be treated separately from the FDA and FSMA’s jurisdiction. Call Sen. Durbin and Sen. Kirk now and ask them to vote yes on the King-Tester Food Safety Modernization Act amendment (#1042) and the Brown local food amendment (#1088).

Senator Mark Kirk: 202-224-2854

Senator Dick Durbin: 202-224-2152

The full House is tentatively scheduled to take up the version of the 2013 Farm Bill passed out of the House Agriculture Committee the week of June 17th with the goal being to finish by July 4th. Assuming both bodies succeed in approving a new farm bill, the next step after that will be a House-Senate conference committee where the final bill will be stitched together and then reported back to each body for a final vote. Congress has until September 30th to act before the current short-term extension to the Farm Bill that was passed as part of the Fiscal Cliff package in the closing hours of 2012 expires. To learn more about upcoming Farm Bill Senate and House floor action as well as more details on the content and funding levels in each bill click here.