WASHINGTON – Two Arkansas lawmakers who helped negotiate a final version of the long-delayed farm bill said Tuesday that the five-year extension of farm and nutrition policies would benefit the state.
“Southern agriculture is protected. There is a very good safety net in the bill, so our farmers shouldn’t have trouble obtaining loans at local banks this year or for the next few years,” said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.
“We were worried we would continue to see the anti-Southern approach common in the last few farm bills,” said Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro. “There was some of that at first but in the end we were able to iron all that out. So, this farm bill is surprisingly favorable to Arkansas given all that.”
The 950-page bill represents a major shift in federal farm policies – shifting away from direct payments to farmers and ranchers to an insurance-based system that provides a safety net for the unpredictable nature of bringing food and fiber to market.
The agreement cuts over the next decade about $19 billion in farm programs and another $8 billion from closing loopholes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The food stamp changes should have a minimal impact in Arkansas where the targeted loopholes were not in use.
Boozman and Crawford were members of a conference committee assigned to hammer out differences between the Senate and House over the farm bill. Both chambers had passed conflicting bills.
Crawford said the compromise represents a win for Arkansas rice growers, catfish farmers and the timber industry as well as cattle ranchers who have suffered significant losses because of recent droughts.
Among the provisions included in the farm safety net is a provision that will protect rice — and other heavily irrigated crops — from unforeseen increases in production costs or plummeting prices.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will also continue to inspect catfish, including imported Asian catfish. The industry has lobbied hard for this as a way of protecting against foreign competitors.
The bill also provides the timber industry with some relief from regulations over timber roads as well as including timber as a renewable product when it comes to federal contracting and purchases.
There is also additional funding for drought assistance to cattle ranchers.
Leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees are optimistic that the bill will clear Congress and be signed into law by the president — despite some opposition from liberals and conservatives.
“I’ve always known that the folks at both ends of the spectrum would not support us,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said during a conference call Tuesday with reporters. “It’s the coalition of the folks in the middle who want to get things done … who will pass this bill.”
The bill is expected to have the support of most members of the Arkansas delegation. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, has yet to say how he plans to vote.
Cotton was critical of an earlier House bill that combined farm and nutrition policies into one piece of legislation — a practice that has occurred for 50 years. He advocated instead for separating the two issues — and supported far deeper cuts to food stamps.
Cotton was still reading over the final legislation on Tuesday, according to a spokeswoman.
Arkansas Democrats have issued a number of statements since the farm bill deal was announced questioning whether Cotton would again oppose a farm bill supported by the rest of the delegation. He is expected to be the Republican challenger this fall to Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who is up for re-election.
Pryor is supporting the farm bill, according to a statement issued by his office Tuesday.
Boozman said that Cotton should be given an opportunity to read over the bill, which is a complex piece of legislation covering farm, conservation and nutrition programs.
“We had the advantage of my staff working daily putting this together so I know what is in it. I am sure they are working very hard to comb through this bill,” Boozman said. “We are all elected to represent our districts and our state and do what we think is best.”
Crawford said that Cotton would have to make up his own mind on whether to support the bill. For his part, he is backing it.
“By and large this bill is good for Arkansas. It doesn’t do everything we would want but then again this is a divided government and we have to work within that context,” he said.