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Stabenow pledges to mark up the farm bill; house hearings begin

WASHINGTON — Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) hopes to mark up the next farm bill after wrapping up her hearings, while the House Agriculture Committee showcased specialty crops and dairy products during its first farm bill hearing in New York earlier this month.

Sens. Stabenow and Pat Roberts (R-KS), ranking member of the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee, have pledged to move a farm bill through committee in the next few weeks. Farm bill advocates are racing against the clock to reauthorize the five-year program before steeper cuts go into effect in 2013, and they hope to move legislation out of committee in the uphill battle to pass new federal government support programs.

Experts agree that it will be no easy task. Sen. Roberts said at a hearing that all titles of the farm bill should be consolidated and evaluated to determine the best use of taxpayer dollars.

Also at a recent hearing, Sen. Roberts took a swipe at a myriad of U.S. Department of Agriculture programs designed to support the fast-growing locally grown movement.

“To those producers who market their crops locally, congratulations and keep up the good work,” Sen. Roberts said. “However, I caution that the belief that locally grown and purchased food is inherently better, safer, or more ‘environmentally sustainable’ than food produced elsewhere in our country pits farmer against farmer, town against town, and state against state.

“Regardless of the season, consumers continue to demand more local products, and many business and markets are meeting producer demand without the need for taxpayer support,” he added.

The House Agriculture Committee held its first hearing in upstate New York, with other field hearings to follow: March 23, Galesburg, IL; March 30, State University, AR; and April 20, Dodge City, KS.

“New York is a fitting place to kick off these hearings because of the variety of food produced here,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) at the March 9 hearing in Saranac Lake. “New York farmers produce a wide range of specialty crops that generate $1.34 billion annually and make up one-third of the state’s total agriculture receipts,” he said.

Adam Sullivan, of Peru, NY-based Sullivan Orchards, testified in favor of farm bill programs that provide funding for research, crop insurance, tree assistance, export assistance, nutrition and marketing.

“Without a skilled agricultural workforce, the best farm bill policies will not have their intended effect,” said Ralph Child, a witness at the hearing who grows 300 acres of seed potatoes and leafy greens in Malone, NY. “I currently participate in the H-2A program out of necessity, not because I think it is a viable long-term option. Any desire to further invest in my business is dampened by concerns about the long-term direction of immigration policy,” he said.

Between hearings, produce representatives are meeting with congressional staffers. The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance pushed for achievements gained in the 2008 farm bill during a recent lobbying blitz.

In the meantime, Sen. Paul Ryan (R-WI) introduced a budget proposal March 20 that would lead to budget reductions of $19 billion below the $1.047 trillion spending cap agreed to in August 2011 and further cuts to agriculture programs at a critical juncture for the farm bill.