WASHINGTON, May 2, 2012 -By the time the Senate Agriculture Committee released their first 2012 version of the Farm Bill to the public on April 20, there were few surprises in the general outline. Key staff members and interest groups had been briefed and a bill that would significantly reform the commodity title, streamline conservation programs and tighten food stamp eligibility emerged.

But when the markup was postponed in an attempt to secure more votes last week, the bill grew from 900 to almost 1,000 pages, eventually paving the way for the committee’s quick approval with a 16-5 margin and an altered price tag. Details are still emerging.

The Congressional Budget Office “score” of the “Agricultural Reform, Food and Jobs Act,” showed a net savings from commodity title outlays of almost $19.5 billion on April 23. Three days later, the ten-year savings line dropped to $17.6 billion, according to CBO - but even that report does not reflect the final changes. Another CBO score on the Farm Bill is expected soon. 

The legislation originally called for removal of direct payments, counter-cyclical payments and the Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) program after 2012. Instead, the new Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) program was put in place, but when the dust had settled, Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., successfully led the charge to increase the payment rates from 60% to 65% at the farm level and from 75% to 80% at the county level. A special price floor was added at $13.00/cwt for rice; and $530.00/ton for peanuts.

The Risk Management Agency is now required to develop a revenue crop insurance program for peanuts. The cotton industry’s Stacked Income Protection Plan remained intact, but there was no longer any reference to a 65 cents/lb. minimum price, an acreage cap, or the World Trade Organization, under which the Brazilians successfully challenged the U.S. cotton program.

Sen. Conrad worked with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. and others to gain support for an amendment that provides $800 million in mandatory funding for many of the rural energy programs that otherwise, are set to expire this fall. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., won approval for his sodsaver amendment which, among other things, reduces crop insurance benefits for native sod converted to crop production, and saves about $200 million.

In the Miscellaneous title, New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who criticized cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and eventually voted against the bill, won inclusion of a provision that asks USDA’s Wildlife Services agents to remove Canadian Geese that may prove to be a flight risk from bird sanctuaries near J.F.K. airport. The provision is already generating protests from animal rights groups in her state.

Many of the reforms embraced in this bill are likely to change again as the bill moves to the Senate floor and the House Agriculture Committee takes a different approach to the commodity title. But if you are interested in a brief summary of some of the key changes in the Senate Ag Committee’s bill, click HERE.

All four GOP members of the panel from states south of the Mason-Dixon Line – Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and John Boozman of Arkansas – voted against the bill. Given his influence as the top Senate Republican, McConnell’s opposition is viewed by some ag policy observers as a sign he’ll attempt to erect procedural hurdles to passing the bill on the floor if changes beneficial to southern crops aren’t added to the legislation.

House Ag Chair Frank Lucas, R –OK, has all but guaranteed that changes will be forthcoming.

The Commodity Title “has yet to be worked out in a way that would be a final Farm Bill,” Lucas said of the Senate’s one-size-fits-all approach to risk management. “A shallow loss program is not a safety net. It does not provide protection against price declines over multiple years and it does not work for all commodities.”


Original story printed in May 2nd, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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