WASHINGTON — The Senate began debate Thursday on widespread changes to agriculture policy that would end direct federal payments to farmers and make cuts to the food-stamp program for the poor.
Both Arkansas senators oppose the bill.
Mark Pryor, a Democrat, and John Boozman, a Republican, said the legislation pits the Southern rice and peanut farmers against grain farmers in the Midwest, who stand to gain more from the bill.
“I cannot support a farm bill unless the Southern region of the country is taken care of in a fair way,” said Boozman, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who voted against the bill in committee.
Over the weekend, Senate leaders are expected to work toward an agreement on the number of amendments that will be allowed during debate on the bill, which will resume Tuesday.
“As currently written, the farm bill lacks an adequate safety net for rice, which could undermine the future success of this entire industry,” Pryor said. “This is a classic fight between Midwestern farming. This bill is tilted to the Midwest. We’re getting the short end of the stick.”
Many agricultural groups said farmers would bear too large a share of the burden as Congress attempts to trim the federal budget. And advocates for the poor said cuts in the bill to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often referred to as the food-stamp program, would hurt those in drastic need of food aid.
The legislation calls for $23 billion in cuts spread over five years at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including $9.4 billion in cuts coming from commodity program aid and $4 billion in cuts from nutrition programs, largely from the food -stamp program.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who receives farm subsidies, spoke on the Senate floor Thursday in support of the bill.
He criticized “mega-farmers who get millions in payments” and targeted Southern farmers who often grow rice and cotton on larger plots - and qualify for higher subsidies - than Midwestern farmers.
“The federal taxpayer should not be subsidizing farmers to get bigger,” he said.
Grassley predicted that Southern senators would attempt to derail the legislation.
“Behind the scenes, they’re really raising Cain,” he said.
President Barack Obama supports the Senate bill, but a White House statement said he will push to preserve funding for food stamps and to increase cuts to crop subsidies.
In its current form, the bill would eliminate direct payments that are made to growers and would end counter cyclical payments, which kick in when commodity prices drop below pre-set target prices. They are meant to be a backstop for farmers when commodity prices fall because of the weather, surpluses or other reasons, such as global politics.
The House Agriculture Committee, which is to take up a companion bill before the July Fourth recess, has also put direct payments and counter cyclical payments on the chopping block.
In their place, the Senate bill would create an Agricultural Risk Coverage program that would pay farmers when their revenue-per-acre drops too sharply. It would also create the Stacked Income Protection Plan, often called a “shallow loss” insurance plan, that would make payments to cotton farmers when their revenue drops between 10 and 30 percent of expected revenue calculated on a county-by-county basis.
With the exception of soybeans, the other major row crops - corn, cotton and rice - would see reductions in commodity payments under the Senate version of the bill, as would wheat, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Over five years, soy farmers would be eligible for $410 million in additional payments above current levels, according to budget office projections. Wheat subsidies would drop by an estimated $2.8 billion, rice subsidies would drop by $1.3 billion, cotton would drop by $2.6 billion and corn would drop by $2.4 billion, the budget office predicted.
But different farming practices would hit Southern growers disproportionately, according to Reece Langley, vice president of government affairs at the USA Rice Federation. His group is pushing for subsidies to kick in when prices change, rather than when a farmer’s yield drops.
Unlike Midwestern growers who risk losing their crops to drought and would benefit from a program that would make up for their revenue losses, farmers who irrigate can still harvest a large crop during dry years. But by paying to irrigate their fields they do so at a great cost and can get hit by low prices, Langley said.
“Rice does not have a lot of yield variability,” he said. “Its primary risk is on the price side.”
Arkansas farmers are “out of the mix” in the pending bill, said Rich Hillman, vice president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau and a rice farmer in Carlisle.
He said the cuts disproportionately target Southern agriculture, particularly Arkansas farmers who received $244 million in direct payments during the current crop year.
“We’re willing to tighten our belts, but we’re not willing to cut our own throats,” he said.
Brett Kincaid, outreach director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a liberal advocacy group in Little Rock, said that cuts made to the food-stamp program would have a devastating effect on poor people trying to feed their families and on the grocery stores where they shop. He said he fears more “austere” cuts will arise when the House considers the legislation. The House Agriculture Committee has already voted to cut food stamps by $33 billion over the next 10 years. In fiscal 2011, federal food-stamp expenditures were $78 billion.
“That money is immediately circulated again,” he said. “It goes directly into local economies.”
Over the past four years, the number of Arkansans signed up for food stamps has increased by more than 100,000. In 2008, 379,768 individuals in the state received the aid, according to the Department of Agriculture. As the country struggled to recover from the recession, that number increased to 486,451 in 2011, when more than $722 million in food-stamp aid was directed to state residents.
Last year, the average monthly benefit for every person using food stamps in Arkansas was $123.72.
In April, the most recent month for which state data are available, 496,087 Arkansans used food stamps.
Kincaid said the program not only helps poor people put food on the table, but it also helps ensure that America’s farmers produce abundant crops every year.
“It seems foolish to pit one against another,” Kincaid said. “They have to work in concert.”