Statement Of Senator Leahy (D-Vt.) The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 Senate Floor

Last week, the Senate Agriculture Committee once again reported to the full Senate a bipartisan Farm Bill, and I am pleased the Senate has turned to its consideration this week.  The bill before us represents nearly two years of hard work to satisfy the widely varied agricultural interests of this country, while supporting food assistance programs for those in need.  The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act will save $23 billion over 10 years, which is remarkable given the fiscal restraints we face, and was overwhelmingly supported by the members of the Agriculture Committee by a vote of 15-5. 

Unfortunately, due to the House’s inaction on the Senate-passed bill last year, many Farm Bill programs expired, while others were temporarily extended at the end of the year, making it all the more imperative that we work together now to ensure we move ahead with a bill in the next few months.  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.  We must not repeat that process.

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 and maintaining the integrity of the policies we worked so hard to pass last year.  The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act 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. 

Agriculture is a pillar of Vermont’s economy and of our nation’s economy, and every Farm Bill is important to the Green Mountain State.  So it is with this Farm Bill that we have produced in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.  One of many key components of this bill in terms of Vermont and Vermont’s economy is a significant dairy reform proposal that offers the best hope in decades of helping producers and consumers step off the dangerous rollercoaster of wild price swings in the markets in which dairy farmers must sell their time-sensitive products.  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 bill once again includes a policy to give the National Organic Program much-needed authority to effectively protect and enforce organic integrity.  In addition to enforcing the integrity of the organic brand, I am committed to seeing that this bill treats all farmers fairly.  We made great strides last year in making improvements to crop insurance so that it will adequately compensate organic producers for their losses.  Similar changes are needed in the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to eliminate the unfair lower payment limit applied solely to organic farmers seeking to enroll in the program’s Organic Initiative.

Another important compromise in this bill is found in the Trade Title, where the proposal 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 Senators to find further improvements in 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.

This legislation 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.  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 that Chairwoman Stabenow included language I offered as an amendment in Committee last year to make it easier for SNAP participants to buy local foods through a Community Supported Agriculture Share (CSA) membership.

But 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 hope during our consideration of this bill we can work to increase support for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, SNAP Employment and Training programs, and Community Food projects to the level included in last year’s Farm Bill.  These programs are essential in our communities, and I hope we can invest as much in these programs this year as we did last year.

I am disappointed, however, that the bill before the Senate today once again includes $4 billion in cuts to the SNAP program, which will predominately come from Northeastern States.  I understand this cut is part of a larger compromise on behalf of Chairwoman Stabenow, who knows how important these nutrition assistance programs are.  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.   

That is why I am particularly concerned about the bill the House will consider which includes five times the cuts to nutrition assistance as the Senate Bill, and $4 billion more than the House included in their Committee bill last year.  These cuts will needlessly eliminate millions of low-income Americans from this program, mostly families, and senior citizens.  The House bill would mean that several thousand children would lose eligibility for free school lunches.  In Vermont, one in five children lives in food insecure homes and I know that number is even higher in some other states.  It is shameful for any child in this country to go hungry and I hope the Senate will continue to oppose these draconian cuts to nutrition assistance.

The Senate Agriculture Committee’s Chairwoman and Ranking Member, and both of their staffs, should be applauded for the great work they have done to swiftly move this bipartisan bill through Committee and now onto the Senate floor in record speed.  I hope the Senate can once again move forward in a bipartisan way to pass the Farm Bill this week, and I hope the House moves forward as well so we might reconcile our differences before the expiration in September of the current short-term extension.

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