Senate 2012 farm bill hearing opens with call to improve current farm bill implementation

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, June 30 – In the first of a series of Senate Agriculture Committee hearings to prepare for writing the 2012 Farm Bill, Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and others focused on the need to significantly improve the crop insurance program as a key part of the federal farm safety net.

In Wednesday's hearing, Lincoln launched the discussion by saying “This first hearing will focus on how well the current safety net is working for our nation’s farmers and ranchers.” Then she launched an attack which Vilsack and senators continued, blasting the press for its slanted coverage of production agriculture. Lincoln said that the hard-working farmers and ranchers who provide vital services “not only have to cope with unpredictable weather and unfair global markets, but they must also suffer from abuse on TV and in the newspapers from folks who really ought to know better than to bite the hand that feeds them.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
listening closely at their June 30 hearing on the 2012 Farm Bill: Photo: Senate Agriculture Committee. 
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) echoed Lincoln, charging that the hard-working farmer just scraping by is “piloried by the press as some big-business farmer who doesn't need any help at all.” Vilsack noted that a recent Morning Joe TV segment on agriculture left him “enraged” to the point where he contacted the program to request equal time to present the facts. Unfortunately, he said, “we have yet to hear from them.” He also warned press coverage could get worse thanks to the cash-strapped media cutting back on coverage.

Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, pointed out that agriculture spending is a small share of the federal budget. He cited Congressional Budget Office estimates which show that over the ten-year projected period of 2011 through 2020, Commodity Credit Corporation outlays are less than one half of one percent of all mandatory and discretionary spending.

Chambliss also zeroed in on Obama administration plans to reduce federal support for crop insurance and to rewrite the rules for farm program payment limitations. He said that both issues were extensively debated as part of writing the 2008 Farm Bill, resulting in signficant changes. He warned that “to now step in and take another whack at two of the basic safety net programs is something this committee is going to look long and hard at. We want to make our contribution. No farmer has ever told me that they didn't believe in paying their fair share to contribute to the issue of deficit reduction. But in taking those two programs to try to make a signficant reduction, I think is going to be met with a lot of resistance on this committee.”

Sen. Roberts raised another farm-belt concern, saying that “Producers feel attacked by every federal agency.” He urged Vilsack to do more in particular to prevent EPA's attempts “to regulate every pothole and playa as if it were the Missouri river.” Vilsack responded by acknowledging that federal regulation “is an issue of frustration” and said USDA has created a system of “on-going dialogues” so that farm groups can interact regularly with EPA and other federal agencies to deal with the frustration.

Lincoln stressed the importance of listening to “our farmers and ranchers who know what works on the ground” - such as the four farmers testifing in the hearing, from Arkansas, Georgia, New York and North Dakota. She said that instead of “a Washington command-and-control, top-to-bottom approach to policy,” it is “vitally important that the safety net features of the 2012 Farm Bill come from the kitchen tables of places like Stuttgart, Arkansas and Cando, North Dakota.”

Lincoln also warned against against experimenting with “some new fangled idea cooked up in Washington or in some college professor’s office.” Instead, she said, “we need to reassure our farmers and ranchers that we will start where we left off: the 2008 Farm Bill.” She summed up that “More than anything else, I think most American farm and ranch families simply want steady, predictable, supportive policies coming out of Washington and for us to otherwise get out of their way.”

Lincoln said “Huge policy fluctuations, mixed signals coming out of Washington, and the uncertainty that these things create make it very difficult for our producers to compete, invest, and plan for the future.”

Lincoln called for strengthening crop insurance and the 2008 Farm Bill's other safety net provisions. She urged USDA to use its current authorities to act rather than wait for new legislation. Specifically, she pointed out that “Congress provided USDA with very broad authority to develop and approve new tools to help producers of all crops and from all regions better manage price, production, and revenue risks. We need to use this and other authorities to their absolute fullest. For example, if we could get every farmer in this country to 85% revenue insurance that is affordable, we would go a long way in filling the holes of the current safety net.”

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