Our crops rise in farm bill fracas

By:  Tracy Warner
Source: The Wenatchee World

The Senate passed its farm bill last month to general praise, especially here in Washington. There are good reasons. The bill eliminates the most notorious, costly and decrepit direct payment programs to big commodity growers, the programs nearly everyone agreed were inefficient and larded up, helping save $23 billion over a 10-year run.

The bill also includes an important boost for research that will surely help growers in Washington. The Senate includes $25 million a year to continue the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, with funding boosts built in for the future. It includes $70 million a year for specialty crop research block grants to the states. There is new funding for research in chickpeas, lentils and peas, big Washington crops. Federal support is maintained for developing markets for our crops overseas. All this was pushed by our own Sen. Maria Cantwell. Remember, specialty crops are what we grow — apples, cherries, potatoes, pears, to name a few. The research this bill will support, combined with money supplied directly by the growers themselves, goes a long way to ensure our region’s agriculture will remain competitive, productive and profitable. With agriculture our largest industry, and surely the greatest contributor to the North Central Washington economy, this funding is important stuff and benefits the growers of crops that often get no other federal support. The Senate provides us good news.

We should hope this little sliver for research in a massive farm bill isn’t lost in the coming debate. Congress is pushing a deadline. The 2008 farm bill, widely criticized for its bloated market-twisting, deficit-making subsidies, expires on Sept. 30. Considering the economy, the federal budget mess and the fast-approaching election, a farm bill that emerges from the House-Senate wrangle will have to included deficit-reducing cuts, reforms of the worst of the federal giveaway programs, while maintaining enough of the farm safety net to avoid rural chaos at just the wrong time. This is a political balancing act, and not an easy one for any faction.

The Senate bill eliminates the direct payment program that paid some big growers even when they didn’t grow. Instead, it relies on a crop insurance program that would compensate growers when prices fall below a set target. Growers of certain crops would have up to 85 percent of their income guaranteed, while having taxpayers subsidize most of their insurance premium.

The House released its version of the farm bill Thursday, as expected proposing larger cuts in food stamps than the Senate. According to reports, the bill keeps traditional support payment programs, to the benefit of rice and peanut farmers in the South, who complained that the Senate bill unfairly favored Midwest corn and soybean growers, who of course get to keep their ethanol subsidies. Both bills keep supports and import protection for sugar. The House bill cuts a bit more than the Senate, $35 billion over a decade. Much of those cuts will come from food stamps, which sets up well for the critics. They will say the House is trying to placate the Tea Party and their key rural constituents simultaneously. The Senate version, which cuts food stamps too, but less, will be called too generous and too timid in its reforms. In either case, the savings won’t be gigantic — the Senate bill will spend $969 billion in a decade, the House $957 billion.

The big numbers make a few million for specialty crop research look like the bargain of the day. Hope it survives the coming fracas.