Statement Of Senator Leahy (D-Vt.) Farm Bill Business Meeting Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry

Madam Chairwoman, you have accomplished what many have never dared attempt and have written two bipartisan Farm Bills in just over a year.  As a former Chair of this Committee I know how difficult it is to draft a bill that seeks to satisfy the widely varied interests of this Committee, which are even more pronounced when considering the difficult fiscal restraints Congress faces.  With your leadership and the leadership of Ranking Member Cochran, you have done a good job drafting the 2013 mark by working together, and your staffs should be commended for their dedication and responsiveness to each of the members of this Committee.  I am glad we are moving ahead in a bipartisan way to advance a Farm Bill that can pass the Senate again this year and can, we hope, become law. 

Unfortunately, drafting a bill this year presented new challenges due to the expiration and then short-term extension of some of the programs in the Farm Bill.  I was glad that in December we were able to delay and prevent the “dairy cliff” from roiling markets worldwide and inflating dairy prices, which would have wreaked havoc in the marketplace and on our farms.  But the short term extension of the Farm Bill is no rational way to legislate, and the last-minute extension left dozens of critical agriculture programs stranded without funding.  I hope once the House Agriculture Committee also considers their bill this week the full House will take it up and vote so that we may move ahead this year and give our farmers the certainty they need going forward.

I am pleased the bill before us contains many of the same improvements included in the 2012 Senate-passed bill while making important updates to reflect new fiscal realities, maintaining the integrity of the policies we worked so hard to pass last year.  The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 makes an investment in American agriculture that will benefit our producers, our dairy farmers, our rural communities, our Main Street businesses, taxpayers, and consumers, all while reducing the deficit by $23 billion. 

Specifically, this mark includes a significant dairy reform proposal that I hope will help producers and consumers get off this dangerous rollercoaster of price swings.  I believe this is key to our consideration of a Farm Bill, and I know it is what farmers in Vermont are watching closely; I have been hearing from them regularly in strong support of stabilization and margin insurance working in tandem.  We simply must protect our dairy farmers from the volatility of turbulent price swings, with a financially sound risk management program to help farmers manage risk and margin volatility, and do so without driving up the cost to the government.

As the author of the Organic Foods Production Act, I am extremely pleased this bill continues to make strong improvements for organic agriculture.  I am also pleased that the Chairwoman has agreed to include once again a policy to give the National Organic Program much-needed authority to effectively protect and enforce organic integrity.

The mark we are considering today also includes support for vital anti-hunger programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Emergency Food Assistance Program.  Unfortunately, with so many Americans still struggling to put food on the table, nutrition assistance and emergency feeding programs have become even more crucial.  Ensuring these programs can continue to serve Vermonters and all Americans in need is a key part to enacting a strong Farm Bill for this country.  I am disappointed that this mark once again includes $4 billion in cuts to the SNAP program, which will predominately come from Northeastern States.  I understand these cuts represent a compromise on behalf of the Chairwoman, and they are certainly far more reasonable than the draft House mark, which includes $20 billion in food assistance reductions. 

Despite these cuts, the bill before us makes important improvements to nutrition programs, including important funding for emergency food assistance.  The bill also contains initiatives to encourage better health, increased access to local foods, nutrition for children and seniors, and to support self-sufficiency and food security in our nation’s low-income communities while tackling the difficult problem of “food deserts.”  I am also pleased the Chairwoman included language I offered as an amendment in Committee last year which would make it easier for SNAP participants to buy local foods through a Community Supported Agriculture Share (CSA) membership.

However, at a time when more Americans than ever before are at risk of going hungry and food pantry shelves across the country are bare, these programs could be made even stronger by dedicating more resources to help the neediest among us.  I am proud to cosponsor an amendment alongside Senators Brown, Cowan, and Gillibrand which would increase funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program, SNAP Employment and Training programs, and Community Food projects to the level included in the Senate-passed bill.  These programs are essential in our communities, and I hope we can invest as much in these programs this year as we did in last year’s Farm Bill.

I am pleased to see that the manager’s package, which has been agreed to by both the Chairwoman and the Ranking Member, includes the new Conservation Compliance agreement that has the support of a diverse coalition of conservation groups, farm organizations, and crop insurers.  The inclusion of this new compliance measure that works for farmers and the environment has the support of six former Natural Resources Conservation Service Chiefs and is an important compromise to help move the Farm Bill forward.

Another important compromise in this bill is found in the Trade Title, where the Chairwoman expands the success of the Local and Regional Food Aid Procurement pilot program from the 2008 Farm Bill and also increases the funds available to support strategic prepositioning, which brings food aid commodities to at-risk regions before food emergencies strike.  I look forward to working with my colleagues to find further improvements for how we can best provide emergency food aid and international development programs that have the flexibility to react quickly in times of emergency, avoid disrupting local markets, and increase efficiency so we can save money and feed more people.

Once again, the Chairwoman and Ranking Member have done a good job encompassing the views on this Committee.  I look forward to working with them as we move to the Senate Floor and then to conference with the House. 

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