06.06.12

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy As Senate Nears Debate On The 2012 Farm Bill

Senate Floor/Congressional Record

The Senate is about to turn its attention to one of the most significant legislative issues on our agenda this year, consideration of the 2012 Farm Bill.  I would first like to thank the Chairwoman, Senator Stabenow, and ranking member, Senator Roberts, for working together in a bipartisan way to advance a Farm Bill -- the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 -- that can pass the Senate and become law this year.  As a former Chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and having worked closely with Senator Lugar on many bipartisan Farm Bills, I know how difficult the task can be of forging a comprehensive bill that addresses many competing needs. 

Some Senators may be scratching their heads trying to understand the urgency of passing this bill and why it matters to constituents in all of our states.  The current Farm Bill expires at the end of September. We also have a serious problem with dairy policy that must be addressed before August 31; our dairy farmers will be left without a vital safety net if we do not act before then. 

I recognize that not every Senator comes from farm country, or hears from many farmers in their state like I do.  But this is a bill that affects every state and touches the lives of every American, through the healthy food on our kitchen tables or in our children classrooms; the clean water that is a result of critical conservation programs; rural businesses on Main Street receiving assistance from USDA; new energy products resulting from research supported this bill; and the benefits we all receive from our local farms and food systems that benefit from this bill. The Farm Bill also has a reach far beyond our borders with the international food aid that provides life-saving support around the globe.

Make no mistake:  Farming is part of our national security.  Imagine what it would be like if we had to depend on imported food, the way we depend on imported oil.  Keeping American agriculture strong and vibrant is at the core of this bill, but this bill does much more.  It will also help keep our rural communities strong, and will support those Americans who are struggling to put food on the table.

Every Senator should know that this Farm Bill makes real reforms, and nets real savings. This bill makes long-overdue reforms to agriculture policy, and consolidates and streamlines USDA programs, all the while cutting $23 billion in mandatory spending. The bill before the Senate today proves that when Democrats and Republicans sit down and work in a bipartisan manner we can make progress and accomplish something real, and do so with fiscal restraint.

Is this the Farm Bill that I, or any individual Senator, would have drafted?  Of course not.  There are conservation and energy programs that farmers in Vermont would like to see strengthened, many nutrition programs that are vital in keeping food on the tables of millions of Americans, and a wide array of rural development programs that do not have mandatory funding in this bill.  But I recognize that this bill is a compromise, and I will continue to work with the Chairwoman and ranking member to make this the best Farm Bill possible.

I am especially pleased that the Farm Bill includes a major dairy reform proposal that I know will help both our producers and consumers move away from the dangerous rollercoaster of price swings.  For our farmers in Vermont, these dairy reforms are the key to our consideration of a Farm Bill. I regularly hear from Vermont farmers about this.  We simply must free our dairy farmers from this destructive cycle of volatile price changes.

The current Federal safety net provides no protection for dairy farmers from this roller coaster of price volatility. The 2012 Farm Bill scraps outdated price supports, and the Milk Income Loss Contract program.  It establishes a new risk management plan that protects farm income when margins shrink dangerously, and a stabilization program to allow farmers to take a proactive role in easing the instability in our dairy markets. 

And it accomplishes this at a lower cost than the program that it replaces and contributes to the savings in this bill.  It is a voluntary program, and can be tailored by the farmer to fit the farmer’s individual needs.

These reforms have the support of dairy farmers across the country, and they have been developed to move us away from the regional dairy fights and the constant policy conflicts between small and large farms.  The 2009 dairy crisis brought plummeting milk prices and sky-high feed costs that combined to force far too many U.S. dairy farmers out of business, and saddled thousands more with losses and debt from which it will take years to recover.  After those dark days in 2009, dairy farmers from across the country came together for a solution that will help them and consumers move away from these volatile price swings.

Dairy is Vermont’s single most important agricultural commodity, and dairy products account for upward of 83 percent – or 90 percent, depending on market prices – of Vermont’s agricultural products sales.  If any Senator has questions about the dairy reforms in this bill, I would welcome discussing what this Farm Bill does for dairy farms.  There has been a lot of misinformation about these provisions, and I welcome the opportunity to eliminate any confusion. 

I have tried to be supportive of programs which do not directly benefit Vermont, and I intend to vote to help farmers in other regions -- just as I hope other Senators will join me in supporting dairy farmers in Vermont, and throughout the Nation.  Just like corn, wheat, soybean, sugar, cotton and the many other types of farmers in our country, our dairy farmers work extremely hard for a living.  Dairy farmers deserve a voice as this Farm Bill has been crafted, and I have been proud to ensure that their voices are being heard in shaping this bill.

While listening to our farmers in writing this bill, we also need to hear the voices of the millions of Americans struggling every day to put food on the table.  The nutrition assistance and emergency feeding programs in this Farm Bill are needed now more than ever.  Because of the greater need for services, these programs currently do not satisfy demand.  The numbers are staggering even for a state the size of Vermont.  In 2010 alone, an average of more than 87,000 Vermonters received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits each month.  On top of that, nearly 86,000 Vermonters accessed food from our State’s food pantries and soup kitchens.  Sadly, those numbers have continued to rise in Vermont and across the country, and they reflect how critically important the nutrition title of the Farm Bill is to so many states.  Ensuring these programs can continue to serve Vermonters and all Americans in need is a key part of enacting a strong Farm Bill for this country. 

Calls to reduce food assistance as a way to solve our Nation’s deficit problems are misguided and shortsighted.  Axing tens of billions of dollars from the SNAP program would eliminate food assistance for millions of Americans and deny hundreds of thousands of American children school meals.  I am disappointed that this bill includes $4.5 billion in cuts to the SNAP program, cuts that will predominately come from Northeastern States.  

Despite these cuts, the Farm Bill does make significant improvements to nutrition programs, including important funding for emergency food assistance and initiatives to encourage better health through improved access to local foods, and better nutrition for our children and seniors.  I am pleased that this bill also makes great advances to support self-sufficiency and food security in our low-income communities, helping to correct the “food deserts” that we experience in both urban and rural communities.  At a time when more Americans than ever before are at risk of going hungry, and food pantry shelves across the country are bare, I am committed to working with the Chairwoman and ranking member to find ways to make these nutrition programs even stronger in order to help the people who need it most. 

I hope that the full Senate can now come together in a bipartisan way, just as we did in the Agriculture Committee, to pass this bill, which will have a tremendous impact on our farms, our rural communities, our kitchen tables, and our economic recovery.

This Farm Bill represents an investment in American agriculture that will benefit our producers, our rural communities, our Main Street businesses, taxpayers, and consumers, and particularly the neediest among us.  It deserves the Senate’s full and focused attention, and it deserves the support of every Senator.

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