Stabenow (J. Scott Applewhite)
Washington— U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said she’s on the verge of forging a deal on the long-awaited farm bill that has been dogged by disagreements with GOP House Speaker John Boehner over milk prices.
The leader of the Senate’s agriculture committee and her House agriculture counterparts had hashed out their differences on the nearly half-trillion dollar, five-year farm bill, but Boehner’s insistence on changing dairy policy had stalled completion, she said.
“We are basically done except the speaker came in and expressed grave concern and created a situation where he said he wouldn’t bring up the bill in the House unless we make changes,” Stabenow, D-Lansing, said this week. “ So at this point, we are negotiating to find a middle ground.”
She added: “I think we are just days away from having that done.”
Waiting in the balance are scores of Michigan farmers, processers and food stamp recipients seeking resolution on the country’s farm and nutrition policy. The 2008 farm bill expired last year. While Stabenow led passage of a new farm bill in the Senate in 2012 and 2013, the House wasn’t able to pass its version until last year.
“This is ridiculous,” said Ryan Findlay, national legislative counsel of the Michigan Farm Bureau. “We started this in 2011. Farmers are beyond frustrated.”
The large issue remaining is dairy policy. Milk farmers have favored the Stabenow-backed stabilization program that would kick in when markets were out of whack, but dairy processors — makers of cheeses, yogurts and ice cream — have lobbied against them.
Boehner, R-Ohio, has backed the processors. He said the Senate’s proposed market stabilization rules on dairy prices amounts to “Soviet-style” control. He’s insisted any farm bill that gets a vote in the House will not include them.
“I’ve fought off the supply and management ideas for 23 years that I have been in Congress, and my position hasn’t changed,” Boehner said last week.
Ken Nobis, a St. John’s dairy farmer, takes issue with Boehner’s characterization of Soviet-style supply and management.
“I’m not happy with some of the rhetoric that’s coming out of Speaker Boehner’s mouth,” said Nobis, president of the Michigan Milk Producers Association. “It’s nothing close to that. The dollars that dairy represent in that farm bill is minuscule. Why it should be held up over that one small issue is beyond me.”
The Senate and House versions replace the milk safety net programs with a subsidized insurance program that reimburses farmers based on the margin between the price of milk and cost of feed. The Senate bill contains additional measures that seek to control the supply of milk when the margin declines below a specific level.
One of the biggest differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill had been cuts to food stamps, with the Senate cutting $4 billion over 10 years, compared to the House’s nearly $40 billion cut over 10 years. Compromise has been reached to about $8 billion by changing rules for claiming credit for state-provided home heating assistance that can artificially inflate the food stamp awards — alleviating what was once the most contentious issue between the two chambers. Stabenow argues such changes won’t kick any eligible person off the program and ensures the safety net.
The new farm bill will also create a safety net specialty crop insurance program to soften losses the next time the weather and frost ravages crops. Michigan is the largest producer of tart cherries nationwide but fruit farmers haven’t had access to the kind of insurance programs corn farmers have enjoyed.