February 5, 2014 in City

Congress approves farm bill

Benefits extend to PILT, WSU research facility
Matt Kalish Correspondent
 

WASHINGTON – After two years of waiting, Inland Northwest farmers have a farm bill that expands crop insurance, simplifies payments and spends millions of dollars on crop research.

The five-year piece of legislation, projected to cost nearly $1 trillion over the next decade, covers agricultural subsidies for farmers and food stamps for the poor. The Senate passed and sent the bill to President Barack Obama on Tuesday.

While farmers welcomed the financial certainty the bill ushered across rural America, some lamented the compromises that sliced $8 billion over 10 years from programs to feed the hungry.

“It’s been a long few years,” said Eric Maier, a Ritzville farmer and former president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. “We couldn’t really do a lot until we knew what was in the provision.”

Deeper insurance programs will cover more crops. The bill also offers a new individual farm option for those who grow wheat and other commodities.

Farmers and communities across the region have watched for almost two full years to see if their programs would be cut. Among the concerns: the Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, program, which sends money to communities to offset tax-exempt government land. The bill offered $410 million to extend PILT for one year.

Food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are also in the farm bill. Though the bill cut the program by $800 million a year, it continues to provide about $80 billion annually for the popular program. It also spends $200 million on pilot programs in 10 states to expand job training for SNAP recipients, patterned after a successful program in Washington state.

The bill includes $700 million for agricultural research, some of it going to Washington State University for wheat, apples, grapes and other specialty crops.

Glynda Becker, a spokeswoman for WSU, said the farm bill allows the university to maintain its Clean Plant Center while making plans for the future studies.

“For us to do our research we need to have consistency,” Becker said. Last year’s temporary farm bill extension didn’t cover some of their research, and WSU had to let some employees go.

The delay in passing the bill came after talks between House and Senate negotiators broke down in 2012 in a dispute over proposals to cut the food stamp program. That farm bill expired, and a partial extension passed early last year.

Both sides still disagree over food stamp levels, but Republicans and Democrats from the Northwest agreed the final bill provides some certainty to the region’s economy.

“While far from perfect, this bill offers much-needed reforms to strengthen risk-management tools and is a far-cry from the status quo,” said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. “Idaho’s agricultural community needs a farm bill.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., agreed that the bill has problems but disagreed on what they are: “I’m very disappointed that this compromise makes harmful cuts to nutrition programs for low-income families in Washington state.”

But the bill provides important investments for farmers and growers, she said.

Obama is expected to sign the bill.

Matt Kalish, a student in the University of Missouri Washington, D.C., Reporting Program, is a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at mattk710@gmail.com.

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