Senate to begin farm bill debate next week


WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate will begin debate Monday on a five-year farm bill that provides additional support to Arkansas rice growers than was considered a year ago.

The legislation, which cleared the Senate Agriculture Committee last week, closely resembles legislation the Senate passed last year but with a higher level of subsidies for rice and peanut growers.

The concession came after a change in committee leadership this year shifted power — on the Republican side — from Midwesterner Pat Roberts of Kansas to Southerner Thad Cochran of Mississippi. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., remained chairwoman.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., voted against last year’s bill but are supporting this year’s revised version.

The House Agriculture Committee last week approved its version of the farm bill that is more generous to southern agriculture interests than the Senate.

Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, who serves on the House panel, expects that southern rice and peanut growers will end up with a better deal than if Congress had completed the farm bill a year ago.

The House version would allow subsidies for rice to kick in if prices fall below a specified “target” price that is slightly higher than the Senate version.

The House is expected to take up the farm bill in June with a goal of having Congress enact the law before the current law expires in September.

A major partisan battle will likely be fought over food assistance. Republicans are seeking major cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which was formerly known as food stamps. The program spent nearly $80 billion last year assisting low-income families.

Nearly 490,000 Arkansans participated in the SNAP program in 2011, receiving an average of $124 per month in benefits, or roughly $1.36 per meal.

Crawford was able to amend the House bill to keep the Fulton and Izard County Farm Service Agency offices open for the convenience of farmers there.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had targeted those offices for closing because they have few employees and are near other FSA offices. Crawford’s amendment would keep them open because they have a high workload volume compared to neighboring counties.

Crawford had hoped to secure funding for two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers irrigation projects in the state, the Bayou Meto Project and the Grand Prairie Area Demonstration Project. The amendment was not accepted.

Crawford also lost an argument over catfish inspection as the House Committee voted to rescind a 2008 farm bill requirement that would have had USDA conduct catfish inspections as it does for meat and poultry.

The General Accounting Office had urged rejection of that plan saying it is not needed because the Food and Drug Administration handles commercial fish inspection.

Domestic catfish producers have argued that the FDA inspections are too lax, making it easier for cheaper foreign catfish to enter the U.S. market.