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Photo: USDA, Some rights reserved.
Photo: USDA, Some rights reserved.

What's in the Farm Bill for the North Country?

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A revamped Farm Bill could reach the House floor for a vote as early as today. The massive legislation which sets agricultural and nutrition policy for the country has already been scuttled two years in a row. But bipartisan negotiators say they have a $500 billion five-year package that will pass.

David Sommerstein joins Martha Foley to talk about what the Farm Bill would mean for the North Country.

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Martha Foley: First, it’s been two years since the current Farm Bill expired. If this passes Congress, this must be a relief for the agriculture industry.

David Sommerstein: Absolutely, having the certainty to budget, to plan for the next five years is a big deal for the farming community. And that’s why almost all mainstream farm organizations are urging Congress to pass it.

On the left and the right, you have major criticisms – that it’s a pork barrel full of wasteful subsidies that benefit the richest agricultural companies, that Congress missed an opportunity to reform farm policy. But in the middle, there’s support.

MF: OK, so let’s look at the biggest impact for the North Country - dairy. The last Farm Bill had the Milk Income Loss Contract, or MILC, which failed pretty miserably. In 2009, milk prices plummeted from overproduction and thousands of farms went out of business. What’s in this Farm Bill?

DS: MILC’s replacement is a margin insurance program. You have the price farmers are paid for their milk. You have farmers’ costs to feed the cows with corn and grain. The difference between those two prices is the margin. And under this bill, if the margin gets too thin, insurance kicks in. And the government--us taxpayers--are paying the insurance premiums.

Farmers can sign up for different levels of coverage, with broader coverage becoming much more expensive. And this last point is a big dea--there was a lot of concern that with insurance, huge dairy farms would just overproduce a ton of milk, knowing the pay-outs would kick in if something went wrong.

That’s why the Senate wanted a plan to manage the milk supply to prevent that overproduction. But House Speaker John Boehner would have none of that, called it “Soviet-style” government intervention. This was a major sticking point for weeks.

So there’s a compromise here, brokered by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. What this insurance program does is pay-off significantly less when a farm exceeds its historic average of milk production. Dean Norton, president of the New York Farm Bureau says it’s not perfect, but he says it will work. "You’re penalized. You’re not getting it all covered," says Norton. "It’s going to tell the industry, slow down, we’re overproducing right now. We need to get back in balance. And I think that’s what will happen here."

MF: What about the whole way farmers are paid for their milk – that decades old formula that no one seems to fully understand?

DS: Yeah, “archane” and “byzantine” are words often used to describe the federal milk marketing orders system. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was pushing for the Farm Bill to include hearings on changing it. But that’s not in here, and Gillibrand says that’s a bad thing. "The price of milk is set by the cost of cheese in Chicago," says Gillibrand. "A lot of our farmers believe that price is manipulated. And so unfortunately, there’s also no relationship between the price that we pay at the corner store and the price the farmers receive. And that disconnect is really creating enormous problems for our dairy farmers."

MF: Another big hold-up for this Farm Bill was how much to cut from the 80 billion a year food stamp program. Where did that end up?

DS: Democrats won pretty big on this one. Tea Party Republicans were pushing for huge $4 billion a year cuts – or roughly 5%. What came out was much smaller--$800 million a year--or a 1% cut. Senator Gillibrand pushed passionately for zero cuts, and she said these cuts mean poor families will lose $90 a month in assistance. "For those families that’s about the cost of a week of groceries," says Gillibrand. "That’s too much. It’s too harsh. The face of hunger in our state is young children. 50% of our food stamp recipients are children. Also, food stamp recipients include a lot of veterans and even active duty service members. Some of our greatest Americans shouldn’t be going to bed hungry."

MF: There must be a ton of other things in the Farm Bill.

DS: Oh sure, there’s an organic program, money for beginning farmers, conservation funding, and much much more. We’ll get to some of those details as we learn more at The Dirt, our farm and food blog at ncpr.org.

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