Agriculture, Nutrition and Dairy
Vermont's farmers are a critical part of the state's economy, history, culture, and future. From centuries-old dairy farms to newly begun organic fruit and vegetable farms, many Vermonters depend on the land for their livelihood. As the most senior member, and former Chairman, of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, Senator Leahy remains a steadfast defender of agricultural, environmental, and anti-hunger programs.
Senator Leahy has helped shape United States food and farm policy for more than 35 years. As he oversaw the writing of the 1990 Farm Bill, Senator Leahy created the National Organic Program to enable farmers to diversify their operations and meet the growing demand for certified pesticide-free products, and to assure consumers that the term “organic” has real meaning under the law. Today, organic agriculture has blossomed into a $30 billion industry and represents the fastest growing sector in agriculture. Also in the 1990 Farm Bill, Senator Leahy helped establish the Farmland Protection Program, which has helped preserve more than 321 Vermont farms and has permanently protected 1,125,480 acres of working farmland across the country.
During the 2008 Farm Bill debate, Senator Leahy ensured his top priorities, including dairy, conservation, and nutrition programs received strong support. The basic safety net for dairy farmers was expanded with the Milk Income Loss Compensation (MILC) program, and Senator Leahy brought to Vermont record levels of funding for environmental conservation programs on farms, which have become a critical engine in the restoration of Lake Champlain water quality. In addition, the 2008 Farm Bill saw a dramatic increase in support for food shelves and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps.
Today, Senator Leahy continues to defend Vermont interests and to protect the viability of food and farm programs across the nation. He helped craft a 2013 Farm Bill in the Senate that supports nutrition benefits, as well as rural development, conservation, and energy programs. His amendment to establish a pilot program to fund gigabit projects in rural areas was adopted, along with an amendment to increase the authorization of appropriations for local and regional food aid procurement projects.
In Vermont, the dairy industry is a pillar of the state’s economy, culture and landscape. Though dairy farmers have long contended with inconsistent milk prices, today, Vermont’s dairy farmers face very uncertain times. Price volatility has created dramatic highs and lows that no one thought the industry would ever see. The fact that the cost of production continues to rise only compounds the problem when prices fall, and increases the gap between what it costs farmers to produce milk and what they are paid for that milk.
The wild swings in farm milk prices have hurt consumers as well as farmers. When milk prices crash, dairy farmers suffer immediately while on grocery store shelves, the prices don’t drop. When the price pendulum swings back, consumers ultimately pay more for milk. Although consumers tend to feel the full impact of rising farm prices, they rarely see the full benefit of the extreme price lows when farms lose money on every gallon of milk produced, and processors earn record profits.
The dairy reforms in the 2013 Senate Farm Bill represent a solution built for the hard times and the good times to protect the nation's fragile dairy production industry and consumers as well.
The bill includes new dairy provisions to replace the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) direct subsidies, providing instead a risk management tool. The new approach, endorsed by major dairy producers in Vermont, creates a federally subsidized margin insurance program and a new “market stabilization” provision that discourages over-supply of milk. This new risk management approach is voluntary and will help individual farmers manage risk while also stopping the harmful cycle of roller coaster milk prices when national supply and demand get too far out of sync.
Unfortunately, the House stripped market stabilization from its version of the Farm Bill. This is highly irresponsible and costly to taxpayers since dairy farmers will be incentivized to produce through government subsidized margin insurance, but left without a check on milk supplies. We could see government costs quickly spiral out of control, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill while a handful of dairy processers will benefit from a glut of cheap milk.
Dairy has never been an easy issue because of the differences among regions, processors and producers of different sizes. It has always been difficult to achieve consensus within the industry. Senator Leahy will fight to keep the Senate language in the final Farm Bill because it offers the best hope for effective risk management tools for all dairy farmers, while also minimizing farm program costs for taxpayers.
More than 20 years ago, Senator Leahy first became involved in the organic movement because he had heard from many Vermonters that there was a significant market for high quality farm goods produced in an environmentally friendly manner. They were right. The organic industry is the fastest growing sector of American agriculture, and it is especially strong in Vermont. Vermont boasts the highest number of certified organic farms and certified acreage per capita in the nation, as well as hundreds of businesses producing and selling value added organic products.
Senator Leahy realized early-on that the organic revolution would only be possible if "organic" really meant something that consumers could understand and trust. That is why he wrote the Organic Foods Production Act, which passed as part of the 1990 Farm Bill and created strong and credible federal standards so that now, over twenty years later, consumers know what organic means. He has pushed the Department of Agriculture to ensure the designation “organic” signifies that a product is not genetically engineered and is grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
In the 2008 Farm Bill, Senator Leahy helped make the organic transition a realistic option for more farmers in Vermont and all over the country by enabling the Department of Agriculture to directly assist producers in defraying the substantial costs of implementing conservation practices when transiting to organic production.
Now, during the 2013 Farm Bill cycle, Senator Leahy has pushed for mandatory funding for the highly effective organic certification cost-share program. This program provides organic producers with 75 percent of, or a maximum of $750, toward the cost of obtaining their organic certification. As the most senior member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, Senator Leahy will continue to defend organic programs as the Senate and House move towards conferencing the Farm Bill.
Hunger and Nutrition
Senator Leahy has helped to lead the fight in Congress against hunger and is a longtime supporter of federal nutrition programs including the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly referred to as Food Stamps). With growing uncertainty in the economy, rising food costs and shortages at food banks and emergency food pantries, far too many Americans are unable to put adequate amounts of healthy food on the table for their families. Senator Leahy recognizes the important role nutritional foods play in healthy lifestyles, especially for children, and is dedicated to doing all he can so that no one in Vermont or America, young or old, has to worry about where their next meal is going to come from. During the difficult budget negotiations in Congress he will continue to fight for these critical programs.