Coloradans Hold Breath Watching Washington Wrangle Over Farm Bill

The titanic piece of legislation known simply as “the farm bill” is being debated again in Washington. The legislation is critical for Colorado, where agriculture contributes $40.7 billion annually to the state economy, making it the second-largest revenue-generating industry after tourism.

Image by Brooke Webb of Mesa Park Vineyards, located in Colorado’s Grand Valley, 10 miles from Grand Junction.

The big money, about 90 percent of the farm bill’s $1 trillion 10-year budget, funds the nation’s food-assistance and farm-subsidies programs. Striking the right balance between those two priorities is a highly contentious and ideological undertaking in an era of highly contentious and ideological politics. Failure to agree on the right balance is largely what killed the measure in the House last fall. This time around, food assistance and farm subsidies programs are slated for cuts that will significantly affect fall harvests and family meals in Colorado and around the country.

“There’s tension because it’s so hard to get anything through Congress,” said Juli Obudzinski, a policy associate at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). “This bill needs to cost less than the previous one. Where does that money come from?”

In addition to subsidies and the food-assistance program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the bill pays for crop insurance, land conservation and for new-farmer loans and training.

Big government

Farm subsidies are a long-time political hot button, especially the kind delivered as direct payments to farmers in good times and bad. In 2012, Colorado farmers received $289 million in subsidies for cash crops like wheat, corn and sorghum, but also for conservation programs. The subsidies pile up year after year and have become a fundamental part of farming operational budgets.

State Senator Greg Brophy of Wray, Colorado, on the eastern plains, for example, has snagged more than $100,000 in USDA subsidies, primarily for corn grown on his family farm, since 1995, according to the Environmental Working Group. The extended Brophy family has received something like a million dollars in subsidies in that time to work their land, according to the database.

Brophy didn’t return calls seeking comment, but he has a record of opposing “big government” assistance programs in general, including those related to education access for immigrants and renewable-energy production.

Critics of the farm-subsidies programs see hypocrisy and opportunism in the politics supporting them, in arguments that separate some kinds of government assistance from others. They also say the subsidies programs are marked by the same kind of inefficiencies and imbalances that have been pointed out for years in regard to other government-aid programs.

“Subsidies are untargeted and uncapped,” said Sarah Hackney, grassroots director at NSAC. “The taxpayer is footing up to 60 percent of a farmer’s insurance premiums, plus the insurance company’s costs.”

As a way to limit those payouts, the Senate version of the bill includes an income cap to lower the number of farmers eligible for aid. A crop-insurance amendment proposed by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) limits premium subsidies for the wealthiest 4 percent of farmers — those making more than $750,000 a year. The amendment is expected to save $1.3 billion over the next 10 years, according to NSAC.

Other cuts will come from the safety net designed for the hungriest and least wealthy among us.

The Democrat-controlled Senate approved an annual $400 million cut to the nearly $80 billion budget of the SNAP program, a pittance compared to the $20 billion in SNAP cuts being proposed in the Republican-controlled House.

In Colorado, the USDA spent about $800 million last year feeding about half a million people, 10 percent of the state’s population. To qualify for SNAP, a family must be at or below the federal poverty line — $23,000 a year for a family of four.

Mesa Park Vineyards’ Brad Webb is a beginning farmer, or a producer who’s been at the work for less than a decade.

A safety net, not a hammock

“In Colorado data shows us that about 50 percent of people participating in SNAP are actually at half the federal poverty level,” said Kathy Underhill, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado. “SNAP is the federal nutrition safety net, not a hammock. The average Colorado family stays on the program for 10 months, receiving about $300 in monthly benefits. It’s a stopgap measure that makes a huge difference in people’s lives.”

Maryann Long, now a food-assistance-program associate with the group, spent a short time receiving SNAP benefits a few years ago after she lost her job and her 5-year-old daughter Gina’s health deteriorated.

“Everything improved after we got onto SNAP,” said Long. “Without these food programs, we would have taken a long time to come back from poverty, from not having enough nutritious food on the table, from not being able to pay our bills and thus our taxes, because we couldn’t find employment.”

After receiving SNAP assistance, Long was able to regain a healthy body weight and Gina’s growth went from the 25th percentile to the 75th, with her iron levels bouncing back to normal.

“Having gone through what I did with my family, I realized that there is a problem with the perception of hunger in our nation… A little more empathy and a little less sympathy goes a long way with people in these positions,” she said.

In addition to supporting direct beneficiaries, SNAP spending also funded roughly 15,000 jobs in Colorado and produced more than $1.2 billion in economic output in 2010, according to estimates by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.

“Even very conservative economists say SNAP is the best stimulus out there,” said Underhill, “Each dollar almost doubles in economic activity.”

SNAP, which alone accounts for 80 percent of the farm bill’s budget, is a particularly ripe target in the House, where the debate over whether to downsize the program has reached biblical proportions. Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) made headlines after bringing Scripture into the debate.

“[Jesus] says how you treat the least among us … that’s how you treat him,” he explained, prompting Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) to shoot back with a libertarian-styled passage from the Book of Thessalonians: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

“To be honest, I much prefer the Senate version of the bill to the House version,” said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. “It’s much more bipartisan and takes a more reasoned approach to the country’s current needs.”

Future farmers knee deep in gridlock

Many observers following the debate in the country beyond the Beltway are deeply concerned that lawmakers not get bogged down in partisan ruts, as they did last time around. The bill is too important, they say. It concerns not just Americans growing and eating food now, which is all of us, but also Americans who will grow and eat food in the future, which even more than all of us.

“This bill encompasses so many things — training for farmers, conservation programs,” said Brad Webb, part owner and vineyard manager at Mesa Park Vineyards in Palisade, Colorado. “If we let it lapse, we can kiss those things goodbye. We don’t need that setback in the ag world right now.”

The USDA estimates that the average age of the American farmer is 57 years and that more than 50 percent of farmers are expected to retire in the next 10 years.

“With the age of the average farmer so high, it’s pretty clear what that trajectory will be if we’re not cultivating the next generation,” said Kristin Lynch, spokesperson for Colorado Senator Michael Bennet.

“How are you supposed to start a farm or ranch?” asks Webb, who began farming five years ago after giving up a finance career in Denver. “The only way my wife and I got in was to buy our way in off professional careers. I see younger people who have a passion, who would do a great job, but how are they supposed to start? There are important programs in the farm bill to help them.”

Many of these programs — which cost a fraction of the bill’s proposed budget — fall under the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act. Broadly, the act opens access to land, credit, technical assistance and training for beginning producers, including military veterans.

“In Colorado, as elsewhere, demand is through the roof for locally and regionally produced food, but people need business tools to get started,” said Sarah Hackney, grassroots director at NSAC. “What you see when you have effective policy like micro-loans are folks who get into the business and sustain themselves.”

Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) put forward a microloan amendment that would allow the USDA to grant small, streamlined loans up to $35,000 to beginning farmers. The amendment didn’t fare well in committee, but it is expected to be revisited on the floor.

Other aspects of the act include an extra 10 percent of insurance support on beginning producers’ premiums as well as insurance programs tailored to small multi-crop farms. In the past, producers could only purchase single-crop insurance. That made sense for commodity farmers with 1,000 acres of corn, but it provided little help for farmers working a 60-acre integrated operation with livestock and a dozen different crops.

“We need to increase whole farm insurance options that reward diversity, because that’s a natural risk-management approach,” said Obudzinski.

The act would also support research and planning for the future of farming through grant funding under a beginning new-farmer development program.

In Colorado, the program has funded a now 7-year-old initiative called Colorado Building Farmers. Through Colorado State University, the initiative brings new and experienced farmers together to develop community resources, write business plans and reach out for start-up or value-added funding.

“There’s good evidence that this kind of technical assistance works,” said Program Director Dawn Thilmany, a professor and agribusiness extension economist at CSU. “That said, we’re very concerned that the program funding will dry up if we can’t pass a farm bill.”

Grassroots advocates acknowledge some recent wins for military veterans and socially disadvantaged farmers across the House and Senate versions of the bill. Even so, concerns linger.

“Everything is being cut across the board,” said Kate Greenberg, western organizer at the National Young Farmers Coalition. “What’s critical is to show our continued support for amendments helping new producers. Things like direct-ownership loans and measures to increase land access were withdrawn in committee and need to be readdressed on the floor.”

The Senate version of the bill passed on a broadly bi-partisan 66 to 27 vote on Monday. The House bill is expected to go up for vote next week. Should this more contentious version pass, the chambers will have to reconcile the two before sending a final version on to the White House for a signature.

“People, particularly in Colorado’s urban corridor, need to understand how important this bill is and how hard it is for beginning farmers and ranchers to access the necessary resources to start and sustain their operations,” said Webb. “That’s the core. That is the future of ag in our state and every state. If they aren’t concerned, they need to be.”

Correction: A previous version of this story put the percentage of taxpayer support to crop insurance too low at 50 percent. Taxpayers fund 60 percent of crop insurance premiums, according to NSAC and EWG

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