Bipartisan effort leads to Senate approval of farm bill

The Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would cut agriculture programs by $23.6 billion over 10 years, mostly by ending direct payments to growers regardless of commodity prices, the biggest policy change in decades.

The measure was approved 64-35. While the bill ends direct payments, farmers would be protected partly by expanded crop-insurance programs and aid for so-called shallow losses when prices drop or crops fail.

The overwhelming vote for passage defied political odds. Many inside and outside of Congress had predicted that legislation so expensive and so complicated would have little chance of advancing in an election year.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called it "one of the finest moments in the Senate in recent times in terms of how you pass a bill."

Continued research funding and export help for Washington state tree fruit crops are intact under the measure.

"All in all, it is a very good product the Senate passed. We are happy with our senators who supported the bill," said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council of Yakima, which works on regulatory and trade issues on the industry's behalf.

The Senate bill continues funding to help commodity groups market their crops overseas. Senators defeated a floor amendment that would have ended the program.

The program provides matching dollars that have been used to promote apples, pears and cherries abroad.

"It's a job-creation tool and an enticement for growers of various commodities to get out there and go where 95 percent of the world's population lives," Schlect said.

While the marketing assistance program has been in effect for years, support for research on specialty crops like those grown in the Northwest is included in the current farm bill for the first time.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in a statement issued by her office, called the farm bill a big win for Yakima Valley growers.

"This farm bill continues strong investment in cutting-edge research to support increased crop yields for apples and other specialty crops grown in the Yakima Valley and throughout Washington state," Cantwell said.

The bipartisanship seen in the Senate may be less evident in the House, where conservatives are certain to resist the bill's costs, particularly for food stamps. Food stamp spending has doubled in the past five years, and beneficiaries have grown from about 20 million to 46 million. The program's budget is now about $80 billion a year, comprising 80 percent of the spending in the farm bill.

The bill sets policy for U.S. agricultural programs for a five-year period. The measure is a prime target for budget cutters because of near-record farm profits and the highest-ever expenditures on food stamps, the Department of Agriculture's biggest expense.

Net farm income this year will be $91.7 billion, the second-highest ever, according to the USDA. Spending on food stamps reached a record $75.7 billion last year, double the level of four years ago.

The farm bill governs programs that feed needy families, improve air and soil quality, encourage rural development and provide a safety net for farmers who suffer crop or income loss. Production subsidies, which may reach $11 billion this year, aid agribusinesses such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill by lowering the costs of their raw materials.

The Senate rejected several Republican amendments that would have reduced food stamp spending by such means as tightening up eligibility requirements.

While losing direct payments, growers of crops including corn, soybeans and sorghum would become eligible for insurance-reimbursement rates based on near-record high prices. A new insurance program was included for cotton farmers, who would also lose direct payments. The plan was modeled on a proposal from the National Cotton Council, the industry group for growers.

The House Agriculture Committee is still working on its version of the legislation, which will have to be reconciled with the Senate measure. Republican Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma said Wednesday his committee will begin debate on its version of the legislation July 11. Congress must pass a bill by Sept. 30 to keep programs from expiring. A lapse would require either an extension of the previous bill passed in 2008 or a reversion to the 1949 measure that underlies the current law.

Groups including the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association support the Senate plan, saying it helps farmers while lowering the federal budget deficit.