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U.S. Rep. Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh)
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh)

Owens: rural America losing clout in farm policy

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Lawmakers and agricultural leaders are searching for a way forward after the Farm Bill went down in flames in the House last week.

Many Republicans bristled at the nearly $100 billion a year price tag. About 80 percent of that is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- better known as Food Stamps. Some Democrats voted no to protest of cuts to that program. In the end, the farm bill went down by a significant margin, even though GOP House Speaker John Boehner voted for it.

It's unclear if the House will take up the Senate's version - which passed earlier this month - or seek to extend the 2008 farm bill for another year.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

North Country Democrat Bill Owens voted yes. He said he didn't like the cuts to food stamps, or the elimination of a dairy program that would have controlled production when there was an oversupply of milk.

But Owens says it's getting harder for rural lawmakers to guide farm policy debates, and his main goal was for the farm bill to survive.

Bill Owens: I had a lot of angst about this. But in the end I concluded that it was in the best interest of the farmers in my district and I think the country as a whole, to get a Farm Bill out of the house into conference. So that was my basic thinking.

David Sommerstein: I've talked with a lot of people since Thursday's vote, who have said, "good!" You know, these are people of…all political persuasions who say you know alternatively there's too much subsidies for farmers in that bill, or there's too much food stamps in that bill. They say, "you know what? Farm policy needs to start over." Do you think that this is sort of a message that this sends?

BO: No I don't because I think the fight that happened on the floor was a fight over SNAP and a fight the dairy security bill. I don't think anything else was a serious impediment to passage.

DS: What about the notion that this Farm Bill has grown in sort of patchwork fashion over decades, and maybe it's too big and too "Frankensteinien" and too complicated and too generous and maybe needs to be sort of be broken down and shifted around and turned around?

BO: If there's a focus on the SNAP program, and that's now the largest program in the Farm Bill, there's some very practical reasons why that's included. Primarily, it's because we have fewer and fewer farm districts in Congress. And in order to get a Farm Bill passed, you need to include something like SNAP in order to bring along those folks who live in urban and suburban settings. Because they don't have the same concern as those of us who represent agricultural districts do.

DS: One comment I was reading said that the failure of the Farm Bill in this vote showed how farmers are and lawmakers from farm states are losing control of U.S. farm policy, and it reminded me a little bit of Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack's comment, that rural America is becoming less relevant.

BO: Well I think I was actually saying essentially that same thought, just a little softer. I think that that is a real problem. And people will not connect the dots until it affects them either in food supply or price. And you have to be providing, in my view, and I'm someone who grew up in the New York City metropolitan area with very little exposure to the agricultural community until I began to live in Plattsburgh, and I came to realize over a period of 35 years, this is a very tricky situation that we're in.

If you disconnected SNAP from the Farm Bill, I'm not sure that you'd get another piece of farm legislation through because there isn't the interest. Until we have a situation where one of the major sources of food supply dries up. And balancing support for farmers I think is very important both short term and long term. And I'm not suggesting to you that I think this particular Farm Bill or the one that was passed in 2008 was a perfect bill. But, it is again something which has been put together as a mosaic in the form of a compromise that focuses on both short term and long term goals. But we have a very hard time communicating that to the urban and suburban communities.

Listen to David Sommerstein's conversation with US Rep. Bill Owens.

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