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NO DONE DEAL YET: Senate Ag Committee's farm bill action is expected to pick up during the next couple weeks.

Criticism of House GOP farm bill grows

Pressure mounts over conservation and SNAP changes that are no 'snap' for approval.

Despite repeated warnings from House and Senate Democrats, the House Committee on Agriculture's "Agriculture & Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2)" bill moved forward for a full House vote — and a possible impasse as written. As the 2018 Farm Bill lobbying action shifts to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, the mantra of seasoned farm organization leaders kicks in — "patience, and let due process political work." There may be plenty of time to finish a new farm bill before the old one expires in September.

As reported in Likelihood of 2014 Farm Bill Extension grows, the biggest stumbling block could be controversial changes to the Nutrition title — SNAP, or food stamps in particular, asserts Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. "Why [the GOP] would jeopardize the farm bill with this is beyond me," Peterson says.

Both ag committees are trying to find solutions that don't cost money. Reason: The Congressional Budget Office's baseline for the 2018 Farm Bill is $112 billion less than for the 2014 Farm Bill.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., doesn't foresee farm bill funding cuts. But the Senate ag committee's ranking member wouldn't rule out an extension of the 2014 Farm Bill.

"Unfortunately, the Republican leadership of the House agriculture committee has abandoned our bipartisan coalition and has chosen a partisan path that makes it impossible to pass a five-year farm bill," Stabenow says. "Our [Senate ag] committee is bipartisan. That's the only way you can get 60 votes in the Senate."

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., a member of the House ag committee, cast one of the "no" votes on the House bill. "As Delaware's former secretary of labor and deputy secretary of Health and Social Services, I've overseen both workforce development and economic safety net programs," Blunt Rochester says. "Essentially forcing individuals off SNAP to pay for an unproven, underfunded workforce training program is troubling. And, the 10 pilot programs designed to give us best practices haven't even been completed or evaluated."

Delaware received one of those USDA pilot grants. While there are some initial signs of progress, Blunt Rochester says, "We won't begin evaluating these programs until 2019. Without the results, it's ill-advised to scale-up a massive employment and training program and change the work requirements. That's not good government.

"Nationwide, it's estimated that we'll need to add an additional 3 million slots to workforce training programs. With just a billion dollars of funding, that's less than $30 per person per month – a drop in the bucket to provide workplace training to anyone."

Blunt Rochester's biggest concern was over creating requirements that don't account for challenges people face in getting jobs or participating — finding affordable child care, transportation or healthcare. "What happens if your child gets sick or your car breaks down? Should that mean you and your child go hungry for up to a year if you're sanctioned?"

Ag and environmental critics pile on
Consider these reactions from groups wearing out their shoes walking the halls of Congress:

• Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president, says the House bill is "wholly inadequate for providing family farmers with resources they need to endure the worst decline in the farm economy in decades. Farmers need higher Price Loss Coverage reference prices for commodities that have been underwater for years."

Dairy farmers need both price supports and a mechanism that manages our nation's oversupply of milk, Johnson adds. At the same time, these programs should be implemented responsibly by capping payments and directing them solely to family farmers.

• The House bill draft still addresses some of the challenges young farmers face, says Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition. It includes mandatory funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the Transition Incentives Program, and the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Grant Program. But NYFC expressed serious concern about the overhaul of conservation programs, particularly as young farmers in the West brace for more drought.

• The bill guts working lands conservation, and eliminates many long-standing subsidy payment limitations for the largest farms, contends Anna Johnson, policy program associate for Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs. "These proposals must not be included in a final farm bill."

Working lands conservation programs would be cut nearly $5 billion over 10 years, eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program that now protects over 70 million acres nationwide. Funding would also be eliminated for Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance, Value-Added Producer Grants and National Organic Certification Cost Share programs. 

• Baseline funding for specialty crops programs would continue under this legislation, notes Robert Guenther, United Fresh Produce Association's senior vice president. But increased funding is needed for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, he adds.

• Leaders of the American Sugar Alliance appealed to House and Senate ag committees to retain the existing safety net for sugar beet and sugar cane growers. "Opponents of this policy, driven by multinational food manufacturers, are aggressively attacking sugar producers' safety net designed to counter foreign subsidies and unfair trade practices," according to the Alliance Executive Committee.

• The National Wildlife Federation says that the draft bill has "good bones," but insists conservation funding must be restored. Aviva Glaser, NWF's ag policy director, says several "poison pill" provisions "would have disastrous consequences for wildlife, lands and clean water. … The bill contains numerous provisions that could harm our nation's forests. Collectively, the draft undermines the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act."

• Finally, there's this condemnation from Friends of the Earth: Lisa Archer, FOE's food and ag program director, calls the House draft a regressive, antiquated bill that props up pesticide-intensive agriculture and factory farms. "Instead, we should channel resources into programs that support organic agriculture, local and regional healthy foods, beginning farmers, conservation, and diversified, pasture-based systems that protect our water, build healthy soil, and provide greater biodiversity and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife.

"Congress needs to pass a farm bill for the 21st century that supports a healthy, sustainable and just food system for all. We strongly support the Food and Farm Act introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore."

That's just a small glimpse of reactions to the House bill.

For more on the farm bill fisticuffs, see:

2018 Farm Bill advances from House Ag Committee

Conaway sees Farm Bill's work provision a 'on-ramp' to work security

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