July 6, 2012 in City

House panel offers trimmed-down farm bill

Wheat farmers, Cantwell back Senate’s proposal
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Fast fact

There are roughly 3,800 wheat farmers in Washington state.

A House committee unveiled a farm bill Thursday that would cut spending by $35 billion during the next decade, about $11 billion more than a similar bill offered recently by the Senate.

Meanwhile, representatives of Washington’s wheat farmers joined Sen. Maria Cantwell in Spokane to build public support for the Senate version of the bill, which would spend $900 billion during the next decade amid a political climate calling for less government and deep spending cuts.

The House Agriculture Committee begins voting on its bill Wednesday, followed by the full House’s future debates over its provisions.

The two chambers are in a race to reach a compromise before Sept. 30, when the current farm bill expires.

Both bills would authorize spending for food stamps and conservation programs. They will alsohelp fund crop insurance policies and farm subsidies.

But they differ on dollars and a handful of programs. The House bill cuts food and nutrition programs more deeply, and returns a farm subsidy program axed by the Senate that would provide financial help if crop prices drop for several successive years.

Supporting agriculture, Cantwell said, “is supporting economic growth and jobs in Washington state.”

Though there are roughly 3,800 wheat farmers in Washington state, the vast acres of grain growing across Eastern Washington have a production value north of $800 million and support 25,000 jobs, Cantwell said.

Brett Blankenship, a Washtucna, Wash., farmer serving as secretary treasurer of the National Association of Wheat Growers, called the pending farm bill “a stimulus package for the rest of us.”

It’s a bill, he said, that will have a stabilizing effect on the nation by playing an important role in feeding the world’s 7 billion people.

Cantwell, among a group of 44 senators urging reauthorization of the farm bill before the deadline, said the bill sends a clear message of certainty and stability to farmers outside of the political maelstrom leading up to the November election.

Food stamps and other nutrition programs consume about 80 percent of farm bill spending and would continue to operate regardless of whether a bill is passed on time.

Farmers and others, however, want to understand the extent of safety net programs and other assistance that helps guide crop planting and loan decisions.

Both bills erase direct payments to farmers, a subsidy that proved controversial as wealthy corporate farms received millions of dollars in government handouts.

Instead, the farm bill proposals boost crop insurance subsidies.

And while the bill also helps fund marketing efforts, farmers say it’s not enough.

Colfax farmer Randy Suess, who is serving as chairman of U.S. Wheat Associates, the industry’s leading marketing and export organization, said past bills’ job creation potential should have resulted in more money for export programs. Instead, such funding has been stuck at the same level for 27 years, he said.

Wheat farmers, he said, already pay for 60 percent of the export program focused on grain, even though the activity spurs new jobs across other industries.

Agriculture exports are big business in Washington state

From apples to wheat, beef, potatoes and wine, agriculture exports more than $11 billion through Washington ports each year.

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