FOOD, CONSERVATION, AND ENERGY ACT OF 2008--CONFERENCE REPORT -- (Senate - May 15, 2008)
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Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, it gives me great pleasure to come to the floor in the final hours of the debate over agricultural policy in this country and to, first and foremost, thank the two principals, who are here on the floor, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Ag Committee. They have done yeoman work in a very difficult process--15 titles and 673 pages of policy--in what is, without question, one of the most complicated efforts at putting public policy and interest groups within the agricultural community together in some degree of harmony. I thank my colleagues for the work they have done.
Mr. President, I will be brief, as I have already come to the floor several times to discuss the valuable programs included in this bill. But I would be remiss not to take the opportunity to thank my colleagues--and this Congress--for producing a good product for the American people.
We have been ``tangled in inaction'' on so many issues. The American people want a functional Congress.
The 2008 farm bill conference report represents a monumental feat for the U.S. Congress. Every 5 years, we undertake the task of reauthorizing our farm policy. This version includes 15 titles; 673 pages.
Though some who have not yet served on an agriculture committee during the reauthorization of a farm bill may disagree, let me assure you this is one of the most complicated pieces of legislation considered by Congress, and it is also one of the most important.
In an age of skyrocketing energy prices, economic uncertainty, and now a global food crisis, there is at least one thing we should be able to be certain of: our Nation's food security. We cannot take for granted our ability to feed ourselves, lest we become dependent on other countries for our food in addition to our oil.
How do we achieve food security? Here are a few key principles.
First and foremost, we enact policy designed to keep our food producers productive and profitable, and ensure access to those foods for all Americans. This includes things such as a safety net to protect farmers from volatile price swings; and nutrition programs that give access to fresh fruits and vegetables in schools.
We enact policy that incentivizes state-of-the-art conservation practices to encourage the best possible stewardship of our agricultural lands. This will ensure these lands stay productive and profitable for future generations. And we enact policy that helps American agriculture continue to diversify--including becoming a larger player not only in our food security, but also in our energy security.
This bill does just that. This bipartisan work product--aptly named the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008--sets a strong and secure direction for our food, conservation and energy future.
The bill has broad support from virtually every corner of my State of Idaho, and every corner of the Nation.
Congress has heard from rural farmers to urban food banks calling for passage of this vital piece of legislation.
Mr. President, 500 farm, conservation, nutrition, consumer, and religious groups sent a letter supporting passage of the farm bill conference report.
These groups--with one voice--recognized that the bill ``makes significant farm policy reforms, protects the safety net for all of America's food producers, addresses important infrastructure needs for specialty crops, increases funding to feed our nation's poor, and enhances support for important conservation initiatives.''
It is not a perfect bill--we all will admit this--but it is a great bill. I commend my colleagues for their work.
The President has stated his intention to veto this bill. It is not often that I so strongly disagree with our Commander in Chief, but on this I must. There are too many great things in this bill to deny its passage over a few areas of disagreement, too many important things for my State of Idaho, and for the Nation.
We began several years ago to ensure that specialty crops were adequately recognized in this new farm bill. We now have a new title devoted to horticulture and organic agriculture. It dedicates approximately $3 billion for specialty crop, pest and disease, nutrition, research, trade and conservation priorities important to this vital industry that represents nearly half of all crop cash receipts in our country, including: $466 million for Specialty Crop Block Grants to support local efforts to enhance competitiveness of local products; $1 billion to expand the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program to all 50 States--which will help our school children develop healthy eating habits; $377 million for a pest and disease program to combat costly damage to crops such as our famous potatoes; $230 million for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative to address food safety, mechanization, plant breeding, and other priorities; $59 million for trade assistance and market promotion to maintain and grow our international markets; and many other programs.
Idaho's famous potatoes, our burgeoning table grape and wine grape industry, our apples and onions and carrots and nursery and ornamental crops--and this just touches the surface of both our current production and our potential to continue to diversify.
Now, it should be noted that this is only one part of the effort to ensure the competitiveness of our specialty crop industry. The next step is to ensure that we have an adequate workforce to conduct the labor in which the average American refuses to participate. The harvesting of those healthy fruits and vegetables--this, I contend, is as important, or more important, than these ``competitiveness'' priorities that we have finally set forward in the farm bill. So our work is not done.
And I could go on for a great deal of time, talking about: the commodity programs that create a vital safety net for our wheat, barley, peas, lentils, chickpeas, oilseeds, sugar, wool producers, and so on; the conservation programs that will help Idaho's booming dairy industry address environmental challenges associated with their growth, and our crop producers to incorporate better stewardship practices; the nutrition programs that are vital to improving the health of our youth; the rural development programs that will ensure funding for things such as water and wastewater programs, broadband, and rural housing; the energy programs that will help us reach the 36 billion gallon RFS by creating new incentives for cellulosic ethanol and beginning to pare down the subsidy for corn-based ethanol; the wildlife programs, such as the provision authored by my colleague from Idaho, that creates incentives for endangered species recovery; the forestry, trade, credit, disaster programs.
Those programs that will benefit the Nation--and my State of Idaho in particular--are simply too vast to cover.
I thank my colleagues once again, and urge support for this vital piece of legislation.
I will now speak, again, specifically to Idaho and to the specialty crops provision that Senator Saxby Chambliss spoke to that is now a very important part of agricultural policy.
We know specialty crops are about 51 percent of the gross revenue of American agriculture, and yet they were never mentioned in agricultural policy from a Federal level. Oh, yes, we had research and experimental programs, and we targeted money into the specialty crop area, but the program crops--those kinds of base crops we think about, be it cotton, soybeans, corn, wheat--all of those were the staples, if you will, of American agriculture, while today they do not represent the majority of the portfolio.
That is why several years ago I thought it was critically important we begin to work to include a specialty crop title. So we began that effort. Today, we have completed that effort with the help of these two Senators and a broad-based coalition to now have a title devoted to horticulture and organic agriculture.
In my State of Idaho, specialty crops are a big deal. Many people have heard about potatoes and Idaho. It is almost synonymous in the minds of the average American. Yet, by definition, that is a specialty crop. Is this a loan guarantee? No, it is not a loan guarantee. It is an effort to advance specialty crops in a variety of ways: specialty crop grants to enhance competitive local markets; expanding the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program in our high schools and grade schools in all 50 States; pest and disease management control; research programs in these areas; initiatives for food safety, mechanization, plant breeding and priorities to keep our edge, if you will, our world-class edge in the area of specialty crops; along with trade assistance and market promotion.
That is a full title. Not only did these two Senators--our chairman and ranking member--who led the effort for us, get this in the bill, they also got money behind it. Frankly, I thought maybe we would have to go the first 5 years simply authorizing the program and then beginning to fund it. But there is now substantial money behind it. It will go a long way toward helping the specialty crop areas and organic agriculture in the kind of farming many of our agricultural areas are moving into.
When you get at the edge of urbanization and agriculture and agricultural farmland, boutique farming, small specialty crop farming oftentimes becomes the transitional form of agriculture. To keep it profitable on the land, so we can keep the land in agricultural production, is very important, and I think that is offered in all of this.
I also thank my Idaho colleague, Mike Crapo, who has worked a long while on making the Endangered Species Act and those private properties that care for endangered habitat--to have a relationship, to have an advantage, to incentivize landowners to appreciate the reality of having an endangered species on their property. He has done that. Our colleagues have recognized it. It is very important we do that.
I could go on a great deal more about the programs that are there: the commodity programs that create a vital safety net for our wheat, barley, peas, lentils, chickpeas, oil seeds, sugar, wool products, and so on; conservation programs that are adjusted and important.
A great deal of effort has been focused on energy over the last several years and agriculture's role in that. It is not by accident that this bill has a title that recognizes energy, and that being a part of--a very valuable part of--American agriculture. To transition dollars out of a mature market in corn-based ethanol into cellulosics is a major step and a correct step in the right direction.
My time is up, but I want to thank my colleagues for the effort at hand. We had a solid vote out of the House last night. I think we are going to have a strong vote in the Senate today on this conference report.
Let me say in closing, to the White House and to our President: Mr. President, you and your people have been at the table working on this program with us for well over a year. It is time you recognize the value of this program, what has been put into new agricultural policy, and support us in that effort.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.