Success on the Brink of the Farm Bill
By Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA)
A culturally and economically diverse state, Pennsylvania has a variety of industries that are important to the state's current and future prosperity--none more so than the Commonwealth's vibrant agriculture community. There are more than 58,000 farms in Pennsylvania, with over ninety percent of these farms owned by individuals or families. For thousands of Pennsylvanians, these farms represent their livelihood, and for America, they represent a vital part of our national heritage and economic success.
So it's easy to see how the agriculture policies made in Washington have a direct impact on the people of Pennsylvania. Over the last few months, each Senate Committee was asked to cut programs and reduce spending in an effort to reduce our expanding budget deficit. This process, known as "budget reconciliation," had a number of serious implications for our state, but Pennsylvania agriculture in particular had a lot at stake during these negotiations. Which is why I'm proud to note that after both the House and Senate passed the reconciliation package, Pennsylvania agriculture has come through the process as, undoubtedly, a winner.
Dairy farms are a critical component of Pennsylvania's agriculture sector, providing an important source of revenue for a large portion of our population. In fact, Pennsylvania is the fourth largest dairy producer in the nation. And the dairy industry, especially those operating smaller family owned farms, faces some unique challenges that require specific assistance. For Pennsylvania, that assistance comes in the form of the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program, a program that many in the Senate, especially those from Western states, have been looking to terminate.
But it would be irresponsible for Congress to allow the MILC program to expire. That's because the program provides a valuable price support to our dairy producers through a supplemental payment whenever the minimum market price for milk drops below an established trigger price. Prices that are too low can have a devastating effect on those who make their living providing our nation with dairy products. Understandably, this is a vital protection for dairy farmers across Pennsylvania--and across the country, as almost eighty-five percent of the nation's dairy farmers are fully eligible for the benefits of MILC. So as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I fought to extend the program by two years. Both the House and Senate approved the extension, preserving an important safety net for our diary industry.
Also under fire in the reconciliation process was the Agriculture Management Assistance Program (AMA), which was set up to help underserved states develop and implement risk management products. Crop insurance is so important to our farmers--one can only imagine the financial and emotional impact of a lost harvest. And the AMA has been a success, as since it's inception, crop insurance participation rates have increased, thereby exposing farmers to less risk. It's a win-win situation--farmers are able to receive adequate protection, and the burden of disaster payments does not fall to the taxpayers. Yet during reconciliation, the House attempted to disband this program as well. Before voting to approve the bill, I insisted on the removal of this House provision. I am pleased to report that the AMA will be included in any version of this bill that is sent to the President.
Both of these programs are extremely important to the short-term well being of Pennsylvania farmers. But another aspect of this debate, another reason it was so important not to allow them to expire, lies just on the horizon--the negotiation of the 2007 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is the most important Congressional action relating to agriculture, dictating domestic agriculture policy for the next few years. By extending the MILC program by two years we ensure that it expires at the same time as the programs for other commodities that enjoy government support, and that the interests of Pennsylvania dairy farmers are on equal footing with the priorities of the rest of the country.
The results of the budget reconciliation process should be very encouraging for Pennsylvania farmers. Why? Because the last few months have demonstrated that the needs of Pennsylvania agriculture cannot be ignored. We have proven ourselves a force to be reckoned with, just in advance of the most important agriculture negotiation that occurs in Congress. In 2007, Pennsylvania farmers will have an opportunity to influence policy with regard to dairy, specialty crops, conservation programs, insurance programs, rural development, production agriculture, agriculture research programs and more. It is my hope that, together, we can build on the victories of the last few months and continue to identify and promote Pennsylvania's agricultural priorities.