New farm bill passes Senate, awaits president

EPA Texas Greenhouse Gases

By Jordan Corona
Staff Writer

Two years in the making, a new farm bill sailed to the Senate on the winds of congressional bipartisan support. Tuesday, the legislation that will set the tone for the next five years of American food policy left the Senate for a signature from the Oval Office.

Historically, the federal government rewarded farmers with a subsidy to encourage land usage. The incentive program — the Farm Bill — came from the 1930s. The legislation helped farmers who couldn’t afford to plant crops in a greatly depressed economy. That model became very controversial when farm bills began sourcing funding for farming incentives with money from assistance program budgets.

But Tuesday’s vote represents a more progressed idea about helping American agriculture. The legislation is the end of the direct-payment subsidies to farmers. The new proposal directs federal assistance at bad crop yields and revenue loss. In expanding crop insurance, the proposal institutionalizes a different approach to supporting the nation’s farmers. Also, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly know as food stamps, will pilot some changes. The bill’s “nutrition” title makes four arrangements to the program. Clarifying SNAP eligibility rules, efforts at combatting benefit abuse, strategies to encourage beneficiary employment and healthy foods are unique to the new legislation.

But neither the farmer’s safety net nor the SNAP improvements were enough to garner Texas Sen. John Cornyn’s support Tuesday. In an email to the Lariat hours before the Senate vote, Cornyn said he would not support the bill’s passage.

“This bill represents a step in the right direction, but I’m concerned that it overlooks obstacles faced by all agriculture stakeholders in Texas,” he wrote. “Furthermore, the bill’s overall cost and lack of much-needed reforms to our food stamp program is concerning.”

Farm Bill 2014 needs $956 billion dollars over the next 10 years for the new farm program and for special provisions to nutritional programs. Of the total, $8.6 billion will come from SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

“While I cannot support its passage, I will continue to work on initiatives that support farmers and ranchers and to address these important issues,” Cornyn wrote.

This past year’s attempt at a farm bill projected a cost closer to $980 billion, give or take a few billion because of the possibility of sequestration. It also would have put a $40 billion hole in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget for supplemental nutrition program, SNAP. The Congressional Budget Office said a cut that large would have caused 3.8 million citizens to lose their benefits.
Kathy Green, senior director of advocacy and public policy at the Capital Area Food Bank in Austin, said it shows how nutrition programs are typically put on the chopping block.

“We were not supportive of any cuts to SNAP at all,” she said.

The farm bill’s cuts from the entitlement program are less across the board — substantially less than they’ve ever been in the history of the bill.

The legislation stipulates funds coming from the assistance program be pulled from those states with Heat-and-Eat programs to distribute SNAP benefits. State Heat-and-Eat programs provide assistance to citizens who need help heating their homes and feeding themselves. Green said only 17 states have those programs. Among them, 850,000 residents on SNAP will lose about $90 a month.

Since Texas has no Heat-and-Eat program, the state’s residents who receive nutrition assistance will not be affected.

Following the losses, there are provisions for state food banks receiving support via the agriculture department’s emergency food assistance program.