Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy, Committee On Agriculture, Nutrition, And Forestry At The Markup Of The 2012 Farm Bill

Remarks As Prepared For Delivery

Madam Chairwoman and Ranking Member Roberts, you had an especially tough row to hoe in writing this 2012 Farm Bill.  This Committee has widely varied interests, which are even more pronounced under the difficult fiscal constraints Congress faces.  While I think most of us can agree that this bill is not perfect, you have done a good job working together and we commend your staffs for their dedication and responsiveness to each of the members of this Committee.  I am glad we are working together in a bipartisan way to advance a Farm Bill that can pass the Senate and become law this year. 

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 what this bill is about.

Madam Chairwoman, your mark includes an important dairy reform proposal that I hope will help both our 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.  We simply must free our dairy farmers from this pernicious cycle of huge price swings.

I hope that this Committee can find a bipartisan compromise that will create both a new Margin Protection Program and allow our farmers to take a proactive role in their farms’ safety net.  This will go a long way toward easing the frothy instability in our dairy markets through the Dairy Market Stabilization Program.  I have tried to be supportive of programs which do not directly benefit Vermont – and intend to vote to help farmers in other regions -- just as I hope that others 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, dairy farmers work extremely hard for a living.  They deserve a voice as this Farm Bill is crafted, and I have been proud to help make sure their voices are heard in shaping this bill.

I am very grateful that the manager’s package includes a new Buy Up option for the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP).  After Vermont’s farmers were devastated by Hurricane Irene last Fall it was made clear to me that we had a gaping hole in the farm safety net for specialty crop farmers who do not have access to crop insurance.  This NAP Buy Up option will be an important new tool for not only Vermont farmers but for farmers across the country to better protect against risk and offer them far more protection than they currently have.

This bill makes great improvements in the Rural Development and Conservation titles, where the Chair and Ranking Member have painstakingly worked to consolidate what had been a confusing alphabet soup of programs and 14 different definitions of the word ‘rural.’  I hope to continue working with you on the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program to ensure a more balanced and equitable distribution of funds between wetland and farmland easements.  We must act now to slow the loss of farmland in this country.  It is not sustainable to lose more than one million acres of farmland each year.  This is the only Federal program available for farmland easements.  I hope that more funding can be made available for Agricultural Lands Easements.

As the author of the Organic Foods Production Act I am extremely pleased that this bill continues to make strong improvements for organic agriculture.  I am also pleased that the Chairwoman has agreed to accept my amendment that gives 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 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 needed even more.  Yet because of the greater need for services, these programs are not able to satisfy demand.  During 2010, an average of more than 87,000 Vermonters received SNAP benefits each month.  On top of that, nearly 86,000 Vermonters access food from our state’s food pantries and soup kitchens.  Those numbers are staggering for a state of our size, and reflect how important the nutrition title of the Farm Bill is to Vermont and so many other 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.  I hope to continue working with the Chair and Ranking Member to include ways to make purchasing local food a reality in nutrition assistance programs.

I am disappointed that the national discourse is flooded with calls to reduce food assistance as a way to solve our nation’s deficit problems.  A budget in the House would cut tens of billions of dollars from the SNAP program, which would eliminate food assistance for millions of Americans and deny hundreds of thousands of American children school meals.  While far from the devastating cuts the House has proposed to these programs, I am disappointed that this bill includes $4 billion in cuts to the SNAP program, which will predominately come from Northeastern states.  

Despite these cuts, the bill before us makes significant improvements to nutrition programs, including important funding for emergency food assistance.   The bill also contains initiatives to encourage better health through improved access to local foods and better nutrition for our children and seniors, and to support self-sufficiency and food security in our nation’s low-income communities, helping to remediate “food deserts.”  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 pleased that amendments have been filed, which I am glad to cosponsor, that increase the ability of USDA to assist in emergency food assistance and offer flexibility for schools to purchase local food.  I have a few amendments that would make purchasing local foods through a CSA membership while a SNAP participant easier, and an amendment to increase the level of funding for nutrition education and obesity prevention for small states.  I think these amendments would improve the bill and I hope they are adopted.

I also applaud the work by the Chair and Ranking to improve the nutritional quality of food aid, foster integration of U.S. food security programs, continue the local and regional food purchasing, and increase the cost effectiveness of food aid. The Farm Bill’s international food aid programs provide critical, life-saving support that will be strengthened through the reforms to improve effectiveness and efficiency in this bill.  Emergency relief and development programs supported through food aid make a difference in the lives of people in need, people who are struggling just to get by. 

As I said, this is not a perfect bill, but it is a solid bill and a good starting point.  No doubt it is the product of months of work.  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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