WASHINGTON — Arkansas’ U.S. senators agree on the merits of the chamber’s latest attempt to advance long-term agriculture policy with the state’s farmers in mind.
Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., voted for the five-year farm bill that the Senate approved Monday. They opposed a similar measure last year but supported this year’s version after changes were made to accommodate Southern rice and peanut growers.
The current bill, which passed 66-27, would eliminate direct payments to farmers in favor of a market-based risk management system.
It would provide greater protections to rice and peanut growers against steep price drops. It also includes a provision that will allow the forestry industry to participate in USDA’s "BioPreferred" marketing program, and would retain a 2008 farm bill provision to shift catfish inspections from the Food and Drug Administration to USDA.
"We’ve made significant improvement from last year’s one-size-fits-all solution," said Pryor. "All in all, this is a win for Arkansas."
"Like any other business, Arkansas’s agricultural producers need certainty to be able to make important planting, purchasing and hiring decisions. A five-year farm bill will give our family farmers and ranchers the confidence to move forward with those decisions, and in turn, create jobs and opportunities in our communities," Boozman said.
Boozman, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, called the Senate bill a step in the right direction to protect vulnerable agriculture producers across the nation.
"We will continue to seek improvements in the final product and I’m optimistic that we can find a solution that both chambers of Congress can support," he said.
The debate now shifts to the House, where leaders have announced plans to bring the issue to the floor for a full debate later this month. The House did not take up the bill last year.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who is unhappy with dairy provisions in the bill, said his personal views won’t stand in the way of moving legislation needed to reset agriculture policies that otherwise expire in September.
"My job isn’t to impose my personal will on this institution or its members. Rather, it’s to ensure we have a fair process and an open debate, leading to a product that reflects the will of our majority, the will of our members, and the will of those we represent. That’s the commitment I intend to keep," Boehner said in a statement Monday.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Senate bill would cost $955 billion over the next 10 years, a savings of about $18 billion from current policies. The House version would save $33 billion. The spending differences focus largely on federal nutrition programs.
The federal government spent nearly $80 billion last year on the food stamp program, which helps low-income families with their food bills. About one in seven Americans now receive some benefit, with the average recipient getting about $4.45 a day.
The Senate would reduce the program by about $400 million a year while the House would cut it by $2 billion annually through changes in the application process.
Arkansas received $722 million in SNAP benefits in 2011 that went to about 17 percent of the state’s population, according to USDA.
Unlike the Senate, the House bill would keep catfish inspection with the FDA. Arkansas catfish producers want the inspection program transferred to USDA, where they hope stricter safety inspections will benefit them over Asian producers.