WASHINGTON — A long overdue update of agriculture policies headed into final negotiations Wednesday as House and Senate conferees sat down to hammer out a final bill.

WASHINGTON — A long overdue update of agriculture policies headed into final negotiations Wednesday as House and Senate conferees sat down to hammer out a final bill.

While significant stumbling blocks remain over how to best shape a safety net for American farmers, those are overshadowed this year by gaping differences between the House and Senate over food assistance programs that will test the ability of the 41 conferees to reach a consensus.

House Republicans are pressing for $39 billion in reductions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the next decade while the Senate plan would cut $4.5 billion to the program formerly known as food stamps.

Speaking in Little Rock on Wednesday U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said there will be "chaos" if Congress fails to approve a farm bill.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, are members of the conference committee and each is looking for substantial cuts to the food stamp program, which has helped about 48 million Americans a month during the recent economic downturn.

Boozman told conferees Wednesday that they must be mindful to "maintain the integrity and support of the public" as they also seek to meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of society.

Crawford did not deliver an opening statement in person but did submit a written statement to the committee. The conference began 90 minutes after it was initially scheduled. Crawford needed to catch a flight, according to his staff.

In his statement, he said the House-approved bill provided needed reforms to the nutrition assistance program that will insure funds are available over the long run for those truly in need.

"The American people demand responsible budgets that reduce the debt, and it is imperative that every taxpayer dollar spent be closely examined for its utility," he said.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a member of the conference, said he would not support a farm bill that cuts nutrition programs as deeply as Republicans have proposed.

"We have a hunger problem in this country and I will not support a bill that makes hunger worse in America," he said.

Conference committee leaders are hoping to have a final farm bill ready by the end of the year for an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate. Congress last approved a farm bill in 2008 and was scheduled to reauthorize it a year ago. Instead, they approved a one-year extension but that expired last month — returning farm policy to the original 1949 law.

"It’s imperative we get this done," Vilsack said, speaking to advocates of the Delta region during the Rooting Wealth that Sticks conference at the Statehouse Convention Center.

More than 300 delegates representing 150 different organizations and 27 states, including each of the 18 in the Delta region, attended the one-day event presented by the Delta Regional Authority and the Aspen Institute to highlight what works in rural America to create regional wealth.

Vilsack told reporters later that approving a farm bill would allow benefits for the poor to continue to flow, alleviate concerns of farmers and other producers and allow for more investment. Failure to approve a bill would cause major problems, he said, including soaring milk prices.

Boozman and Crawford acknowledged that reauthorizing a long-term bill is a pressing need for Arkansas farmers seeking some sense of stability as they plan ahead.

The first conference meeting was held in public with each member given an opportunity to make a statement. Most conferees agreed that there is work ahead for them to produce a bill that can pass both chambers and be signed by the president. Many also used their opening remarks to focus on specific issues important for their home states.

Boozman noted that agriculture makes up 16 percent of Arkansas’ gross domestic product and that farmers there are counting on conferees to "settle differences" and provide five years of certainty they need for the future.

"We need to complete the work of the farm bill," he said.

Boozman emphasized the need to offer a diverse "safety net" to farmers and not rely on crop insurance as a single tool that can protect all from natural as well as economic disasters.

The House-approved bill includes programs that would offer rice and peanut growers more protections than the Senate bill. Boozman and Crawford have said they plan to lobby for the House approach during conference negotiations.

Crawford, who represents the nation’s largest rice-growing district, said in his statement that the bill "must be reflective of the farmer’s production risk … whatever that may be.

"In my view, a producer’s choice program is best suited to achieve this goal in the commodity title," he said.

Boozman also spoke of the need to keep up with research, which would be helpful to programs in Pine Bluff.

Crawford noted the need to provide regulatory relief. In particular, he said the bill should rein in proposed regulations that would "negatively change" the way livestock and poultry are marketed.

Jeffrey Hall, a lobbyist for the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said ahead of the conference meeting that he hopes the commodity support program that comes out will look like the House proposal.

"It provides added protection for crops that we grow that are heavily irrigated, like rice and cotton," Hall said.

Hall said Arkansas farmers also want Congress to keep the marriage between farm and nutrition policies rather than split the two issues as some in Congress, including Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, have favored.

"It’s really the only motivation for Congress to update agriculture policies that our farmers need every five years," Hall said.


Arkansas News Bureau reporter Rob Moritz contributed to this report.