The American people are fortunate to have the most abundant and affordable food supply in the world. This bounty is the result of the hard work and initiative of our nation's family farmers.
Recently, with my support, the U.S. Senate voted to reauthorize the Farm Bill. This legislation would make significant reforms to federal agriculture programs and important investments in nutrition, conservation, and rural development. In addition to providing a safe and healthful food supply, farmers in Maine and across the country support millions of jobs, sustain our rural communities, protect the environment, and preserve the open space that is a vital part of our heritage.
This five-year reauthorization bill demonstrates much-needed fiscal responsibility by eliminating wasteful direct payments, which over the years have provided financial benefits to hundreds of wealthy individuals not involved in farming. Overall, the bill would cut spending by $24 billion, a step in the right direction.
I am particularly pleased that the Farm Bill contains some significant help for family farms in Maine and throughout the country. It contains a bipartisan provision that I authored with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would reform the way the USDA sets dairy prices. Our provision would require the USDA to begin the hearing process to restructure the current, flawed milk pricing system and would direct the Secretary of Agriculture to release the Department's recommendations to Congress.
These reforms are supported by Maine's dairy farmers and by Walt Whitcomb, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conversation and Forestry - who is also a dairy farmer.
The bill would maintain fruit and vegetable research programs, which are critical for Maine's potato and wild blueberry growers. In addition, the bill includes several local and organic food initiatives including funding to help expand programs, such as the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, that encourage more and more Americans to buy from their local farmer. It would also continue an important education, training, outreach and mentoring program to ensure the success of the next generation of farmers.
Studies show more than 50 million Americans don't get enough to eat, and far too many families struggle to put food on the table. That's why it's important that the 2013 Farm Bill would continue vital programs to address hunger and nutrition promotion while strengthening the integrity and accountability of federal nutrition programs. I was pleased to see the adoption of commonsense reforms and the rejection of an amendment that would have made harmful changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) safety net.
Given the significant budget pressures, the bill would appropriately improve the effectiveness of conservation and rural energy initiatives. It demonstrates a continuing commitment to voluntary working lands programs that help improve stewardship practices with technical assistance and cost-share programs for working agricultural and private forest lands, including in Maine.
There are, however, some disappointments. In an arbitrary decision by the USDA, the fresh white potato is the only fresh vegetable or fruit to be specifically excluded from the SNAP program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC. Along with a bipartisan group of my colleagues, I filed an amendment that would have allowed for the purchase of nutritious and affordable white potatoes in WIC. The modification we proposed is strongly endorsed by Maine's potato industry and supported by sound nutritional science. I am disappointed that our provision did not receive a vote, but I will continue to press for this reform.
An amendment I cosponsored with Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that would eliminate a payment limit for organic farmers under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, also did not receive a vote. It is also regrettable that the amendment to reform the sugar program by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), which I cosponsored and which was endorsed by a broad coalition of consumer, business, and environmental groups, failed to pass. According to the Congressional Budget Office, these reforms would save $82 million over the next ten years.
The leadership of the Senate Agriculture Committee deserves credit for putting together a bipartisan Farm Bill during this time of partisanship. This bill is a welcome change from the previous reauthorization, which was loaded with wasteful spending and subsidies. I continue, however, to have concerns that the cost of this Farm Bill remains too high and that more should be done to reform agribusiness programs to help address our skyrocketing deficit. On balance, however, this bill will help strengthen American agriculture, nutrition programs, and conservation and rural development initiatives in the best interests of American taxpayers.