FOOD, CONSERVATION, AND ENERGY ACT OF 2008--CONFERENCE REPORT -- (Senate - May 15, 2008)
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Mr. KOHL. Mr. President, I intend to support this conference report and encourage my colleagues to do likewise.
Achieving consensus on farm bills is a notoriously difficult task. For all their hard work on this measure, I want to express my appreciation to Chairman Harkin, Ranking Member Chambliss, and the talented staff who put in long hours to get us to this point.
The end result of these hard-fought negotiations is a better safety net for dairy producers in Wisconsin and across the Nation. This bill restores and strengthens the original MILC Program, which was a hard-won effort designed to end regional dairy battles and provide a safety net for small and midsized producers. Since its implementation 6 years ago, MILC has proven to be a critical backstop for thousands of family farmers when milk prices plummet. The ``feed cost adjuster'' included in this bill acknowledges that rising feed costs have become a real challenge for dairy farmers. My colleague and friend Senator Leahy and his staff played a pivotal roll in guiding these provisions and I commend their work.
This measure also moves forward in allowing interstate commerce in State-inspected meat products. This has been a significant priority for me. Wisconsin has more State-inspected plants run by Main Street entrepreneurs than any other State in the Nation. They make great products. At a time of further proposed market concentration among major slaughterhouses, we ought to find a way for these smaller entrepreneurs to safely expand their markets and compete across State borders. Doing so will be good for livestock producers, consumers, and Main Street businesses.
The nutrition title of this bill is also noteworthy. It incorporates urgently needed updates to the Food Stamp Program, to be known hereafter as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Over the years, low-income households have suffered erosion of benefits due to inflation. The current minimum food stamp benefit has not been raised in over 30 years. This bill raises the minimum benefit and indexes it to inflation. It removes disincentives for retirement and education savings and takes childcare costs into consideration when calculating eligibility. It strengthens support for food banks and will help get more fresh fruits and vegetables into our schools.
The conference report includes a compromise on easement valuations under the Wetlands Reserve Program, WRP. Administrative changes to the WRP have diminished its usefulness in Wisconsin and other parts of the Nation, and these changes are intended to correct that problem. This is an area, like several others, where I intend to closely monitor the USDA's implementation of the law
I am very pleased that the 2007 farm bill conference report includes the authorization of funds for the Housing Assistance Council. HAC is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to the development of affordable rural housing. The Housing Assistance Council offers loans and technical support to local nonprofit entities across the country to develop safe and affordable housing in rural communities. With nearly one-fifth of the Nation's population living in rural communities and 7.5 million of that population living in poverty, decent affordable housing is in short supply. HAC provides the necessary tools to create and develop housing opportunities in areas of our country that are often overlooked.
This bill, like any bill, has shortcomings in some people's eyes. Many of us wish more could be done to reform payment limits and target benefits. But at the end of the day this bill is superior to extension of current law and makes some meaningful improvements in critical areas.
As chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, I have the honor and responsibility of working on a farm bill each year in the form of an annual appropriations bill for the USDA. There are a number of provisions and programs in this measure which are directly tied to discretionary, appropriated funding. Of course, the subcommittee's ability to act on those objectives in the appropriations process is directly tied to the resources made available to the subcommittee. I look forward to working with my colleagues and the executive branch as we try to balance all of these critical health, safety, conservation, nutrition, research, and rural development objectives.
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