Senate clears path to final vote on farm bill

The U.S. Senate is poised to give final approval Tuesday to a nearly $1 trillion bill that would dictate the nation's agriculture policy for the next five years, reduce how much taxpayers spend on food stamps and alter conservation programs for the Chesapeake Bay.

Though debate over the farm bill has not been as publicly rancorous as the recent budget battles in Washington, the farm bill nevertheless profoundly affects American consumers, including by regulating how much they pay for a gallon of milk and whether the packaging on a pound of steak discloses where the cow was slaughtered.

Following years of negotiation, the legislation is expected to win broad bipartisan approval, and President Barack Obama has indicated he will sign it. The House of Representatives passed it last week, and the measure cleared a key procedural hurdle Monday evening.

The Senate voted 72-22 to advance the bill to a final vote.

"Maryland's No. 1 industry is agriculture," said Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who voted for the bill. "These federal dollars will help support Maryland's farmers and a safe, reliable food supply."

For weeks the most significant sticking point in talks over the measure was potential cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. Conservative Republicans in the House had approved a $40 billion reduction in an earlier version last fall, but agreed to an $8.6 billion cut in the final bill.

Advocates for the poor say the cut, while smaller, is still too much for families to endure during a slow economic recovery. The reductions will cause about 850,000 low-income households to lose an average of $90 in monthly benefits, according to the nationwide coalition of food banks called Feeding America.

But Maryland — where some 796,000 residents receive food stamps — would be spared a direct hit from the federal cuts because the bill targets an enrollment program not used in the state.

Nearly 48 million people receive food stamps nationwide, up 18 percent since 2010.

Maryland Food Bank president Deborah Flateman noted the cuts come on top of an $11 billion reduction that occurred when a recession-related boost in spending ended on Nov. 1. Flateman said distribution from the food bank has increased 35 percent since that cut.

"It's important to remember that hunger doesn't stop at a state's border," she said.

The cuts come as lawmakers continue to debate whether to extend federal benefits for the long-term unemployed that expired shortly after Christmas. Obama pressed for an extension during his State of the Union address last week, but Congress is deciding how pay for it.

The farm bill includes a provision that would set aside money to help low-income families use food stamps to buy fresh produce at local farmers' markets.

Food stamps already are accepted at nearly a dozen farmers' markets in Baltimore and Baltimore County under a program created by Maryland Hunger Solutions in 2010. The federal money could help supplement philanthropic funding that allows SNAP beneficiaries to increase the value of their food stamps in similar programs across the country.

"This is good news in the midst of a lot of bad news," said Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, a group that works to end hunger in the state. "This is a program that has value, but it's not the answer to all of the challenges" faced by SNAP recipients.

The bill also changes the way conservation funds are allocated to protect the bay from farm runoff. Historically, the Chesapeake Bay watershed has been guaranteed a stream of conservation funding. Under the new arrangement, the region will have to compete for that funding.

Advocates say they are confident the bay will remain a priority for federal funding. Whether its funding will be consistent with the past, however, remains to be seen.

"Given the fact of ever-scarcer federal dollars, this was a pretty good deal," said Beth McGee with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We think the bay will compete."

In a statement, Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said the legislation would continue to provide farmers the resources needed "to ensure their ability to continue to … conserve the Chesapeake Bay watershed."

The legislation makes other cuts to farmers, ending a controversial program that subsidized crops even when prices for those crops were high. But opponents of the legislation said those cuts are replaced with other generous subsidies.

House lawmakers passed the bill on a 251-166 vote Wednesday.

Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, the state's sole Republican in Congress, opposed the bill, arguing that it failed to protect farmers or adequately reform food stamps.

Meat and poultry groups, including those that represent the Eastern Shore's poultry industry, have raised concerns the bill does not delay a labeling provision that requires retailers to note the product's country of origin. The groups are concerned about administrative costs of complying.

"Since 99 percent of the chicken we consume in the USA is hatched, raised and processed in the USA, the impact will be administrative costs associated with increased paperwork and new wording on the labels," said Tom Super with the National Chicken Council.

The companies are also concerned about trade. Mexico and Canada have raised formal complaints that the provision discriminates against their livestock. U.S. producers are worried those countries could retaliate with tariffs on U.S. products, making it harder for companies to export.

Other agricultural groups, including the Maryland Farm Bureau, support the measure. A big part of the reason, said bureau president Chuck Fry, is that the legislation would for first the time in years give farmers a five-year, consistent federal policy with which to work.

"One of the most important factors for our members," he said, "is certainty."

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