WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2014 - Just days after flying on Air Force One to witness President Obama sign the farm bill at her alma mater, Michigan State University, Senator Debbie Stabenow traveled to Scottsdale, Arizona, to celebrate the hard-fought victories that led to final passage and a significant expansion of crop insurance as the centerpiece of the farm safety net.
“It’s finally sinking in that it’s done,” the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee told Agri-Pulse in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the crop insurance industry convention. “In my mind, failure was not an option…we had to get this done. I felt that it was absolutely unacceptable for us to punt this and just do a continuation of the old policy when we knew there were things we wanted to change; things we wanted the strengthen like crop insurance; things like direct payments that shouldn’t be funded anymore and I was just unwilling to just punt this. I couldn’t ignore the reforms that we had worked so hard to achieve.”
Still, there were lots of ups and downs and plenty of misinformation that leaked along the way. Stabenow said she was reluctant to negotiate in the media so she didn’t correct a lot of things that surfaced. For example, “there were many stories asserting that negotiations on nutrition were holding up the bill, which actually wasn’t true. We had SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) done before the commodity title, she explained. “It really was planted versus base acres that took a tremendous amount of time trying to get this commodity title right.”
When it comes to concerns about planting distortions, the Michigan Democrat sounded more like Senator Pat Roberts, R.-Kan., her former ranking minority member, noting that it was “important to me to make sure we are not creating a situation where farmers feel they need to plant for the program.”
Stabenow said she knew how important it was to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R.-Okla., to have the target price levels from the House version in the final bill. “But that meant that this was absolutely critical that this be done on base acres. It was actually one of the most difficult and complicated parts of the bill as we were looking at how to do that and how to bring together their price support program and our revenue program with Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC).”
Although some of her fellow Democrats voted against the almost $8 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Stabenow said she was pleased that the cuts were far below the $40 billion approved in the House and resulted in much-needed reforms.
“From my standpoint the people that really need temporary help in our country- seniors and people with disabilities and children and people who need help putting food on the table in the greatest country in the world, we should be able to do that. But, I’m willing to make sure it is accountable. Tackling waste, fraud and abuse is something that we need to continue to do so that’s what we did.”
In the end, Stabenow said it was a series of partnerships that really made final passage possible. For example, she cited over 350 conservation and environmental organizations, like Ducks Unlimited, that endorsed the farm bill and said she could see the impact as she worked the House floor during the crucial vote.
“That made a real difference. It was a very, very broad coalition, including the National Rifle Association, which endorsed it from the point of protecting habitat for hunting. I know for a fact that there were some Republicans who had voted against the farm bill last year and changed their vote because of the NRA.
“People don’t realize that, because 70 percent of the land in our country is owned by somebody, the farm bill is about working with landowners on a voluntary basis as opposed to some of the other regulatory things that happen. This is a voluntary partnership where through the farm bill the federal government partners and shares the costs on conservation efforts. Farmers and ranchers use these conservation practices and it makes a big difference.”
Several of the changes in the crop insurance title, including expanding the program to help more organic growers, fruit and vegetable growers and beginning farmers, all help build the coalition to support crop insurance in the future, Stabenow told the group. In addition, the new safety net for cotton, the Stacked Income Protection program or STAX, is moved from the commodity title to the crop insurance title.
“We’ve got critics gunning for crop insurance,” she added, while noting that there was an additional $5.7 billion added to the title in the 2014 farm bill. “We are going to have to have an even strong, broader coalition to explain the importance of crop insurance in the future.”
For more information, see www.agri-pulse.com.