Colorado farmers and ranchers said Tuesday they not only now have a road map for the future of their businesses, but one they’re actually proud of.
Congress on Tuesday gave its final approval to a new five-year farm bill, sending the measure to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it, and end years of political battles.
Partisan disagreements stalled the bill for more than two years, but conservatives were eventually outnumbered as the Democratic Senate, the White House and a still-powerful bipartisan coalition of farm-state lawmakers pushed to get the bill done.
“Over the years, discussions on certain topics had gone all over the place, and the outcome could have been a farm bill we didn’t want,” said Marc Arnusch, a southern Weld County farmer, who sits on the Colorado Farm Bureau’s board of directors. “The bill we have isn’t perfect, but it takes a lot of steps in the right direction. The dialogue between producers and lawmakers certainly paid off.”
The Senate passed the bill 68-32.
The bill provides a financial cushion for farmers who face unpredictable weather and market conditions. But the bulk of its nearly $100 billion-a-year cost is for the food stamp program, which aids 1 in 7 Americans.
House Republicans had hoped to trim the bill’s costs, pointing to a booming agriculture sector in recent years and saying the now $80 billion-a-year food stamp program has spiraled out of control.
The food stamp program was cut about 1 percent; the House had pushed for five times that much.
The final compromise bill would get rid of controversial subsidies known as direct payments, which are paid to farmers whether they farm or not. But most of that program’s $4.5 billion annual cost was redirected into new, more politically defensible subsidies that would kick in when a farmer has losses.
“Farm bills always serve as guides for farmers and ranchers in their planning for the future, but this farm bill, with what all it includes, is also one I think we can be proud of,” Arnusch added.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a member of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee and the Farm Bill Conference Committee, stressed Tuesday that the bill “cuts red tape by consolidating and streamlining dozens of programs, and ultimately reduces the deficit by $23 billion.”
“Although long overdue, today’s vote means that our state’s producers, from the Eastern Plains to the West Slope to the San Luis Valley, are one step closer to the certainty and predictability that comes with a full, five-year roadmap for food and farm policy,” Bennet said. “Among other things, this bill improves the health of our forests, reduces the risk of wildfires, provides a critical safety net for our state’s producers in the event of extreme weather, and provides essential resources for our rural communities. We traveled across Colorado talking with farmers and ranchers to make sure their voices were heard in this process, and it’s about time we got this done for their sake.”
Agriculture adds $40 billion annually to Colorado’s economy and supports about 175,000 jobs.
Bennet, Arnusch and others Tuesday applauded the farm bill for:
» Ending direct payments, which Colorado producers have said is their lowest priority for risk management.
» Strengthening the crop insurance program.
» Its livestock disaster assistance to help ranchers deal with extreme weather.
» Its new, Bennet-backed tools for supporting organic agriculture, including extending crop insurance coverage to organics and allowing producers to create an organic check-off program.
» The improved conservation easement program Bennet helped write, allowing landowners to preserve their land for future generations while still using it for crop production and grazing.
» Its resources for agricultural research, including new support for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network to protect the livestock sector against potential disease outbreaks.
» Reducing the deficit by $23 billion, making the Farm Bill one of the few deficit-reducing bills to pass this Congress.
» The permanent reauthorization of stewardship contracting, a public private partnership where the U.S. Forest Service partners with private business to restore forest land, thereby decreasing fuel loads, reducing the risk of fires and spurring job creation.
» Its expedited treatment of forest land that has been infested by insect and/or disease, through a Bennet-authored provision called the National Forest Insect and Disease Act. More than 800,000 acres in Colorado have been decimated by the beetle epidemic.
» The inclusion of five modern air tankers to help fight fires.
» Its resources to support rural development.
» The one-year extension of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, which Bennet successfully fought for after PILT funding was removed from January’s appropriations bill. In the 2013 fiscal year, nearly 90 percent of Colorado’s counties received PILT payments, totaling $32 million.