Nearly one month after a one-year extension of legislation to protect the nation’s farming, conservation and nutrition programs expired, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are poised this week to consider a final, comprehensive agriculture reform bill that will net more than $24 billion in savings, support 16 million American jobs, and make considerable progress in advancing conservation and wildlife protections.
Vermont’s Senator Patrick Leahy (D), the most senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a member of the conference committee tasked with reconciling differences between the Senate- and House-passed bills, lauded the committee’s work. The Farm Bill will accomplish some of the most far-reaching reform of U.S. agriculture policy in decades.
“After more than a year of needless delays, the Senate and House have come together to do what is so rarely seen in Washington these days: resolve their differences and pass meaningful legislation that will protect the country’s agriculture industry, provide food security for millions of American families, and preserve millions of American jobs,” Leahy said. “This bill is not perfect, and no bill is. But Vermont farmers, conservationists, and Vermont families can now have the certainty they need to plan for the coming years ahead.”
In the closing hours of the negotiations over the conference report, Leahy negotiated a compromise to protect small dairy farmers in Vermont by securing drastically lower premium rates for Vermont’s small dairy farmers that will help them to better mitigate their risk through a new Margin Protection program for dairy farmers. House conferees had rejected the market stabilization program in the Senate-passed bill, then over the weekend also rejected a proposal offered by Leahy to implement a $1 million annual net-payment cap for the new Margin Protection Program for Dairy Producers or to create a new third tier of “actuarially sound” premium rates for those with more than 2000 cows. The final compromise for lower premium rates for Vermont’s small dairy farms and substantially higher rates for the country’s largest dairy farms was agreed to in the final hours of the Farm Bill negotiations and will result in lower costs for Vermont’s family farms. “This will keep this program focused on the needs of smaller dairy farms,” Leahy said.
“The nation’s dairy industry endures more price volatility than almost any other agriculture sector in the country, and small dairy farms like Vermont’s are rightfully concerned about overproduction by larger farms,” said Leahy. “It is unfortunate that House conferees rejected Senate-passed efforts to include a practical market stabilization program for dairy, as well as payment caps under the new margin protection program. But this compromise, to keep the dairy safety net focused on small farms and not abused by megafarms, is a good step in the right direction.”
While the agreement fends off some of the most harmful attacks to the nation’s hunger safety net originally approved by the House of Representatives, Leahy expressed strong disappointment that the final compromise contains more cuts to the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) than the Senate-passed measure, especially at a time when so many families continue to struggle to put food on the table, and just a few months after families nationwide saw a cut to benefits. Leahy was a lead Senate supporter of an amendment to remove these cuts, and the final bill pulls back from the most extreme cuts passed earlier by the House.
The final Farm Bill also includes significant initiatives to encourage better health, increased access to local foods, improved nutrition for children and seniors, and support for programs that promote self-sufficiency and food security in the nation’s low-income communities.
Leahy – the “father” of the national organic standards and labeling program — also worked successfully for Farm Bill programs to support organic agriculture, conservation and water quality work on farms and agricultural research programs. He also again led in winning renewal of the charter for the Rural Economic Area Partnership (REAP) Zone program. Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is one of only three REAP Zones in the country, and the region’s REAP Zone designation has helped bring millions of dollars of improvements to the Northeast Kingdom.
The House of Representatives is expected to consider the final compromise bill as early as Tuesday, and the Senate is expected to take it up later this week.