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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Judy Olson: Republican Farm Bill bad for region

Judy Olson

These last few weeks Congress has been debating a renewal of the Farm Bill. You may not know about it, but literally everyone who eats has a stake in its outcome, and it has profound impacts on farmers like my husband and me.

It rears its head every few years, and historically it’s been overwhelmingly bipartisan. This year, however, it’s facing partisan gridlock as congressional leaders try to use it to cut food assistance programs for families in need, including our current congresswoman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

My husband and I own a farm in Garfield, Washington, where we raise wheat, barley, lentils and canola. Just like we rely on crop insurance for bad weather, farmers large and small rely on the Farm Bill to provide a safety net during times of market instability.

It includes a number of programs that matter to farmers and others, including farm commodity support, financial support for new and small farmers, conservation, support for rural infrastructure and food security for hungry families.

The last is called SNAP, the food assistance program that almost 1 in 5 households in Eastern Washington depend on, and that’s exactly what Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Paul Ryan and other congressional leaders are trying to attack this year.

Specifically, they want to attach new work requirements to SNAP, a move that the president of our nation’s largest food bank organization called “backwards.” Nonpartisan studies show that SNAP recipients who are physically able to work, do. In fact, we know the vast majority of SNAP households in Eastern Washington have a member who is or was recently employed. They’ve just fallen on hard times.

Additionally, their proposal simply includes adding work requirements, but doesn’t create any new programs to connect these people with work, so claiming that they’re trying to lift people out of poverty is misleading. In rural Washington, especially in places with high unemployment, new work requirements are going to cause people to go hungry or move somewhere with more jobs, if they can afford to.

It doesn’t need to be this way. The Farm Bill, which has existed in some form since FDR, has a long history of bipartisan leadership, including leaders like Tom Foley and Bob Dole.

The current politicization by McMorris Rodgers, Ryan and others threatens the decadeslong coalition of farmers and consumers this bill is meant to serve, and ultimately puts all of us at risk.

The 2014 Farm Bill was written at a time of historically-high agriculture prices and high export demands for U.S. agricultural products.

Today, the picture is much different. The prices farmers receive for our goods continue to decline as the U.S. backs away from international trade agreements and threatens tariffs on our trading partners. All it takes to rattle a sensitive market is a tweet.

I’ve watched our export prices, particularly to Asian markets, plummet. I’ve also watched McMorris Rodgers remain silent for months, not wanting to break rank with Ryan and other leaders in Congress.

When farm and safety net programs are insufficient, they don’t provide family farmers with the resources they need to survive the worst decline in the farm economy in decades and unnecessarily upend programs people in rural communities depend on.

We need strong voices in this national conversation to ensure that the Farm Bill is amended and revised to ensure that American farmers can continue to provide the most abundant, affordable and safest food in the world while not relying on struggling families to foot the bill.

Bottom-line: we need a new advocate in Congress. This is just one of the reasons I’m supporting Lisa Brown for Congress. I’ve followed her since day one, and I know she understands the agriculture economy in Eastern Washington and understands the solutions we need. As a farmer, I’m not interested in being used as a political commodity. I have a voice and a vote – and I plan on casting it for Lisa Brown.

Judy Olson is a fourth-generation farmer in Garfield, Washington.