After more than two years, Congress passes trillion-dollar Farm Bill

By Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News

A few things that farmers like Steve Baccus were hoping for this season finally happened Tuesday - moisture fell on the wheat crop and a farm bill passed Congress.

A thick blanket of snow fell across the nation's midsection throughout the day. In addition, after more than two years of debate and farmers planting their crops with uncertainty, Congress finally passed a five-year, trillion-dollar farm bill.

Yet, it was a surprise in a state known as the breadbasket of the nation, where agriculture has long been the backbone, that all but one congressional leader voted against it.

Last week, Kansas' four Republican representatives, Mike Pompeo, Tim Huelskamp, Lynn Jenkins and Kevin Yoder, voted no to the House version of the bill. On Tuesday, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts also voted no. Sen. Jerry Moran was the lone supporter of the legislation, which passed the Senate 68 to 32 after clearing the House last week.

Sure, it's not perfect, Baccus, an Ottawa County farmer and Kansas Farm Bureau president, said Tuesday morning. But the state's farmers need certainty. Their bankers need certainty.

"If Congress was a functional unit like we used to have, and could discuss workable solutions and moved forward, then yeah, we want to go back" and make a few changes, Baccus said.

However, he added, "That's not what we have today. We don't have a Congress functioning. Now we've gotten this far, and it is the only train on the track."

The farm bill train did make dramatic changes, overhauling a system that includes items from crop insurance to how food is packaged and sold to provisions that help those in poverty pay for groceries.

Gone, however, are direct payments, a roughly $5 billion subsidy that paid farmers whether crops were high or low or even if they didn't plant a crop. It was, in part, replaced by new insurance-based subsides - one for shallow losses not covered by crop insurance, another that kicks in if crop prices fall below certain thresholds.

The new farm bill also budgets more money for expanding traditional crop insurance, a program heavily lobbied for by Kansas farmers amid a drought that baked their fields and diminished yields over the past three years. Instead of getting a government paycheck when times are good, farmers will pay a subsidized insurance bill - thus only receiving support when times are bad.

The bill also cuts about $8 billion in food stamps - 80 percent of the farm bill - by modifying eligibility loopholes.

In all, the bill is supposed to cut roughly $16 billion in government spending over the next 10 years, according to government estimates.

Kansas farm-state congressional leaders have touted several reasons for voting against a farm bill. Reps. Pompeo and Jenkins both noted they weren't supportive of mandatory country of origin labeling, both calling it a burdensome requirement that could hurt Kansas beef producers and the economy.

Huelskamp, meanwhile, spoke vocally that cuts aren't deep enough to the nation's food stamp program. However, last summer, when the House tried to separate food stamps from the farm bill, the Hutchinson Republican voted against farm-only legislation.

Roberts told The News after the vote Tuesday that there were a few bright spots in the current legislation - including livestock disaster assistance and crop insurance.

However, he said, overall, "I think it heads backward not forward. It's a rear-view mirror bill."

For instance, he said the new Price Loss Coverage program sets target prices too high, "guaranteeing overproduction."

Payments occur when the average market price for a crop year is less than the reference price. He noted some Kansas farmers have told him they will plant to receive the highest subsidy payment rather than planting for the market. That includes wheat, which has a target price guarantee of $5.50 a bushel. The current price at a Dodge City grain elevator, Roberts said, is about $6 a bushel.

"That creates planting and market distortions," he said of the subsidy program.

The 1 percent cut in SNAP, or food stamp, funding, also wasn't deep enough, he said.

Roberts also said that while he was on the farm bill conference committee, the conference report was "done behind closed doors" by two people - Frank Lucas, R- Okla., and Debbie Stabenow, D- Mich. He added that he has worked 17 years to bring about a more market-oriented farm bill and this one heads in the wrong direction.

"I was asked to vote for a conference report without ever seeing it," he said.

"A final thought, I promised to work with Kansas agriculture and champion everything we work for," he said. "I understand all this time we needed a farm bill. We need a farm bill but we don't need this farm bill."

Kansas Farmers Union President Donn Teske said while he wished the bill had stricter payment limitations, this legislation has "a safety net for farmers that's commendable." Teske also said he supports country-of-origin labeling.

Baccus is glad to finally see compromise. While some Kansas lawmakers are pushing for food assistance reform, he notes that drastic cuts to the program are "not realistic. It's not going to happen."

"Our job is to raise food," he said of farmers, adding the crops reaped are for all Americans.

The new farm bill, he said, "strengthens crop insurance, helps stockmen who've been hammered by natural disasters and improves conservation programs."

What they say:

Jerry Moran

"Congress has taken a lesson from farmers and ranchers and finally finished what it started. While not ideal, this bill reduces farm program and food stamp spending by $16.6 billion and provides agriculture producers with the long-term certainty they need to produce food, fiber and fuel for our country and the world. The Farm Bill provides Kansas farmers and ranchers with the strong, stable crop insurance and disaster programs they need to remain confident when facing Mother Nature."

Pat Roberts

"Unfortunately, I believe that Congress has missed the mark, and that the conference report goes backwards towards protectionist subsidy programs, instead of forward with innovative and responsible solutions. I am not alone in that assessment All four Kansas House members voted no - on what is arguably the single most important piece of federal legislation in Kansas. That should grab everyone in America's attention - the entire House delegation from the wheat state - was united in opposing this version of the farm bill. It is not that we do not appreciate agriculture or the producers and their families in our state, it is entirely the opposite - we care so much that after three years of work we will not settle for supporting backwards legislation just to get something done."