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Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act--Motion to Proceed--Resumed

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, today we have before us the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012. It is more commonly known as the farm bill. It is critically important for America's farmers and ranchers. But it might also be known as the conservation bill, as the food bill, and, even better, the kitchen table bill because this bill affects every one of us.

The Agriculture Committee is different from most other committees in Congress. Our committee room does not have a raised dais. Instead, we sit around a table just like families across the country do and just like farmers and ranchers do after a long day of work in the fields. To write this farm bill, we sat down around our table and we talked to each other and we listened to each other and we worked in a bipartisan way to craft a bill that creates jobs while cutting subsidies and reducing the deficit.

The result of that effort is what is before us in the Senate. It is a bill that affects every family across the country. The farm bill makes it possible for many families to come together around their own kitchen tables to enjoy the bounty of the world's safest, most abundant, and most affordable food supply.

We are also aware, especially in this very tough economy, that many of our neighbors, many of our friends, many of our family members are struggling to put food on their own tables. The farm bill is critically important to those families as well. As we begin our debate in the Senate on the farm bill, let us remember the families all across the country who are counting on us to get this right.

I want my colleagues to also remember that the farm bill is a jobs bill--16 million jobs. Sixteen million jobs in this country rely on the continued strength of American agriculture. They are the people doing the work it takes to put the food on our kitchen tables, not just those on the farm but those who manufacture, sell farm equipment, the people who ship the crops from one place to another, the people who have the farmers markets and local food hubs, the people who work in food processing and crop protection and crop fertility, not to mention the researchers and the scientists who worked hard every day to fight pests and diseases that threaten our food supply.

Throughout this recession, as those 16 million people can attest, agriculture has been one of the truly bright spots in our economy. That is why we made such an important effort, such an important bipartisan effort in this farm bill to support beginning farmers as well. We are giving them additional support for training, mentoring, and outreach to ensure the success of our next generation of farmers.

In addition, we are giving opportunities for U.S. veterans who are interested in pursuing a career in agriculture, and we are creating a military veterans agricultural liaison within the Department of Agriculture to educate veterans about farming and connecting them with beginning farmer training programs. I would also remind my colleagues that for those who have served and are serving us in Iraq and Afghanistan, the majority of them--over half of them--are coming from small towns and rural communities and they are coming home. One of the ways to provide opportunities for jobs is to support them coming back to their community by having the opportunity to go into agriculture.

One of the brightest spots in agriculture has been in exports. This chart shows the incredible growth of agricultural exports over the last number of years. In fact, total agricultural exports in 2011 alone reached $136 billion. It is a 270-percent increase just in the last 10 years, an explosion, as we reach out. American agriculture is looked to and depended upon to feed the families of the world.

Our trade surplus is $42.5 billion. Let me repeat that. We have a significant trade surplus in agriculture. We cannot say that in much of any other place in our economy. But in agriculture we are growing it here at home. The jobs are here at home, and we are exporting it overseas, which is what I would like to see in every one of our industries. It is one of the few areas where we have that kind of success.

We know that for every $1 billion in agricultural exports, we are creating 8,400 American jobs--8,400 American jobs for every $1 billion in exports. The investments we make in market development, in access for our agricultural products overseas, will continue to create jobs here at home.

As we were writing the farm bill, we also did something that families all cross the country are doing during these very hard times. We went through everything we are spending, everything we are spending money on, and we looked at how we could do more for less. We literally went through every page of farm policy and agriculture spending through USDA. This bill represents major reforms that will allow us to focus fewer resources on the things that create jobs and make the biggest difference. In other words, we are refocusing. We are cutting the things that are not important and refocusing on the things that are and the things that create jobs.

The Agriculture Reform Food and Jobs Act is about cutting subsidies and creating jobs in America. The reforms in this bill start on page 1 with the repeal of direct payments, countercyclical payments, and the Average Crop Revenue Election, which has been called the ACRE Program.

We are creating a new approach, a new program that only helps farmers when there is a loss and only for crops they have actually planted, and we are strengthening payment limits. We are ending more than 100 programs and authorizations that are no longer needed, and we are doing all of this in order to be able to cut the deficit by $23 billion.

The most fundamental reform in the Agriculture Reform Food and Jobs Act is the shift away from direct payments
and toward risk management for farmers. Throughout this process, we have been focused on principles, not programs, and the No. 1 principle is risk management. So we are repealing direct payments. We know farmers face unique risks unlike those in other businesses.

Let me stress that again. I do not know of any business that has the same kind of risks in market volatility, in weather volatility than our farmers and ranchers do. It is very fortunate we still have people who want to stay in that business, given all the risks, weather and market conditions, which are out of producers' control. They can have devastating effects. We know that. But the current system focused around direct and countercyclical payments does not focus on actual risk and it is no longer defensible or sustainable.

In this current fiscal and political environment, these programs actually jeopardize our ability to have a real safety net for farmers and the jobs that depend on them. That is why we are eliminating those programs and instead strengthening crop insurance as the centerpiece of risk management in the farm bill.

This is the No. 1 issue we heard from every farmer who has testified before the committee, whether it was in Michigan or in Kansas or across the country. Every region of the country we have heard the same thing loudly and clearly.

The basic foundation of support for producers is crop insurance. We are expanding crop insurance in the bill to include specialty crops and others as well. Because while we know crop insurance is the foundation, it does not work the same. It is not available for every commodity. That is a commitment we have made to expand crop insurance, including specialty crops, which are essentially the kinds of crops we are likely to find in the produce aisle of our supermarket or at the local farmers market: nuts, vegetables, fruits, and other products.

This is an extremely diverse group of crops, and the bill recognizes the unique crop insurance needs of specialty crop growers. We are also taking strides to help young and beginning farmers get started and succeed in farming. We have made revisions to crop insurance to better help those new farmers by reducing their crop insurance premiums and providing additional support when disasters strike.

Supplement crop insurance. This bill creates a simple market-oriented and risk-based program we are calling ARC, Agricultural Risk Coverage. ARC represents a significant and historic reform in agriculture policy. For years, Congress has struggled to balance the needs of different commodities, different programs. This is solved with the new ARC Program, which uses the market as a guide and treats every commodity the same.

The current system essentially amounts to an income transfer from the Federal Treasury to only certain people, certain farmers, because payments are made every year without regard to whether the farmer had a successful year or whether the individual is farming. I say ``certain people'' because many farmers do not qualify for the help today as well.

Direct and countercyclical payments are made using what is called base acres. That is the current system to determine the payments. Base acres were set using what was planted on the farms back in 1980s. So these base acres have little relevance to what is actually happening on many farms today. This change is also very important for new farmers. We have told beginning farmers this is a very important way to support them.

Our ARC, on the other hand, the program we have developed in this bill, uses only the acres a farmer actually plants. It is able to adapt to free market forces and the decisions made being made on the farm without interference from those business decisions a farmer makes. We want the marketplace making the decisions, not the government.

ARC is market oriented. Farmers only get help when the market moves in the opposite direction from historic price trends farmers use to plan their business and make planning decisions. The payment amount is based on actual historic numbers from the marketplace, not from the Halls of Congress.

Finally, too many current program payments are being made to people who do not actually farm or already have large incomes. The farm bill fixes this. Under current law, we say farm payments can only go to people who are actively engaged in farming. This requirement contained a loophole, however, known as the management loophole that lets a farm operation designate managers who are not actually farming, but because they are listed as managers, they can still get a payment from the government, and it can allow them to get around the payment limits.

That does not make any sense. Thanks to Senator Grassley, Senator Tim Johnson, who has legislation in this area--and Senator Grassley is a member of our committee who has been such a champion on this issue--we have eliminated that loophole and made sure the payments are going to people who are actually farming.

This farm bill also reforms the adjusted gross income eligibility requirement, lowers it substantially, eliminating any payment to millionaires. Current law includes two AGI calculations, one for farm income, one for nonfarm income, which is confusing and difficult to administer. It may allow some people to split their income in a way that they are eligible for payments they otherwise would not be eligible for. We close this loophole. We use a single, simple AGI calculation and restrict the eligibility to those who have less than $750,000 in AGI.

Finally, the farm bill caps payments at $50,000, less than half of what a farmer can currently receive.

Coupled with closing the management loophole, the farm bill contains the tightest and strongest payment limit reforms ever, while maintaining and strengthening the farm safety net for farmers who really need it. And this is very important. This is not about eliminating options, it is about focusing on those who have the most risk and have the most need.

In dairy, we also reform our Nation's dairy policies, replacing the dairy programs with new, market-oriented programs that allow farmers to manage their own risk in a manner that works best for them. The dairy industry suffered serious hardship in 2009, as many of us know--and certainly the Presiding Officer knows we in Michigan have the same thing--when milk prices dropped substantially, wiping out many small and medium-sized dairies. Despite spending $1.3 billion that year, our current dairy programs weren't able to help many of the farmers in crisis. In some cases, dairy farms that had been passed down from generation to generation went bankrupt and, sadly, some farmers even took their own lives.

Dairy operations across the country are extremely diverse, and the dairy policies we are setting in this bill recognize that diversity. We created programs that can be customized by each dairy, and we allow individual dairies to determine whether to participate in the programs at all. Two programs will now comprise the dairy risk management system: the Dairy Production Margin Protection Program and the Dairy Market Stabilization Program.

The first provides support based on margin--that is, the difference between the milk price and the feed input costs. This is important because rising grain prices, coupled with dropping milk prices, can have a devastating impact on America's dairies. Producers will have to share in the program's costs--and this is important--but it will allow them to manage their risk on more of their production at higher protection levels. We are providing a discounted premium for the first 4 million pounds of milk marketed for each producer--which is somewhere around 200 to 250 cows--to make sure that small and medium-sized operations will be able to participate and that all farms will be eligible.

The second program, the Market Stabilization Program, sends clear market signals to producers that indicate when they are oversupplying the market. Dairy is a unique commodity in that it is produced 365 days a year, cows must be milked daily, the raw product requires further handling and processing, and there are significant regional differences in management and marketing. By temporarily reducing a participating operation's payment for milk marketed by a small percentage when there is too much supply, the margin program removes the incentive for dairies to overproduce during times of low margins. The program also includes a suspension trigger based on world prices that ensures U.S. dairies are competitive in the global market.

Conservation. Throughout this farm bill, we took the same approach as a family sitting around the table would when they are trying to figure out cuts in their own budget. We went through every program, again looked at what was working, what wasn't, looked for duplication and waste, and we focused on principles, not programs. An excellent example of that really is conservation.

Farming is measured in generations. Farms are passed down from children to grandchildren. But a farm can only be successful if it has quality soil and clean water. One of the farmers who testified before our committee told us that conservation programs which ``enhance and protect our natural resource base is a crop insurance program for the nation.'' I would agree. With a growing global population, it is even more important than ever that we conserve water and conserve soil resources. Advances in technology and farm practices have helped our farmers be more productive than ever before, but no amount of technology can overcome degraded soils, poor water quality, or a lack of water.

The farm bill is actually our Nation's single biggest investment in land and water conservation on private lands in our country. As we went through every program, we focused on making them more flexible and easier to use. We have been able to focus 23 different programs into 13. We have reduced it to 13 and put them in 4 primary functions, with a lot more flexibility for the users.

The first function is working lands--giving farmers and ranchers the tools they need to be better stewards of the land. The Environmental Quality Incentive Program--or EQIP--is one of the most important conservation programs for working lands, providing technical and financial assistance to farmers, ranchers, and private forest owners to help them conserve soil and water. This function also includes the Conservation Stewardship Program, which encourages higher levels of conservation and the adoption of emerging conservation technologies.

We also continued the conservation innovation grants and the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which allows private landowners to get added benefits from their lands by opening them up to hunting, fishing, bird watching, and other kinds of outdoor recreation. We made these programs more flexible--and this is very important--and we added a focus on wildlife habitats and made them easier for farmers to take advantage of.

The second area is the Conservation Reserve Program--very important. It removes highly erodible land from production to benefit soil and water quality as well as wildlife habitat. Parts of the Southwest--certainly my friend and colleague from Kansas knows this--have experienced record droughts this year. It is stunning what has happened, and it is the worst since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. But the soil, while it was dry, stayed on the ground because the Conservation Reserve Program was a part of that change protecting the soil and air. Our conservation efforts are actually working, and we are seeing changes even in the worst of times as it relates to the droughts.

CRP has also been critical in our efforts to rebuild wildlife populations and to reduce pollution in our streams, our rivers, and our lakes. We also continued an important transition incentives program to help older farmers transition their land to beginning farmers.

Third, we focused on regional partnerships. We consolidated four different programs into one that will provide competitive, merit-based grants to regional partnerships comprised of conservation groups, universities, farmers, ranchers, and private landowners to support improvements to soil health, water quality and quantity, and wildlife habitat. That is certainly important to me for the Great Lakes--and I know the Presiding Officer cares about that as well--but it is also critical for the Chesapeake Bay. And I want to thank our colleagues from the bay area, certainly Senator Cardin and Senator Casey, who are on the committee, but also Senator Warner and Members all across the bay who have been deeply involved in making sure we get this right. It is also there for other critical areas around the country that have large-scale regional challenges around conservation.

Finally, I am really proud of the work that was done around easements. Easements allow landowners to voluntarily enter into an agreement to preserve wetlands and farmland to protect against development and sprawl. This year, funding for both the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Grasslands Reserve Program were was out. So we streamlined and consolidated to establish an easement program with a permanent baseline going forward to protect agricultural lands from development.

This bill also includes a bipartisan sodsaver provision, and I wish to thank Senators Thune, Johanns, and Sherrod Brown for bringing it forward, authoring it, and working with us. This provision helps prevent the plowing up of native prairie. Sodsaver is aimed at protecting grasslands at high risk of being converted to cropland. This is not only good for conservation, it saves taxpayers $200 million over 10 years, and it is tied to crop insurance.

I should also say that while the conservation title in the farm bill is a big win for conservation of our environment, I am proud to say we have continued to link the commodity title, which I described earlier, to conservation.

In crop insurance, the sodsaver program creates a penalty if, in fact, someone is plowing up native prairie. They would lose part of their discount under crop insurance if they did that. So it is tied there, and that is very important.

I am very proud of the fact that we received support for our approach from 643 different conservation and environmental groups in all 50 States. I think that says loudly and clearly that it is possible to make smart cuts that increase flexibility without sacrificing effectiveness.

Another area in which we have made significant strides is nutrition and healthy foods. For too long our Nation's farm bill ignored the diversity of agriculture and the kinds of healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, that families in America want to put on their kitchen tables as well. We made significant progress on this front in the 2008 farm bill, with the first-ever specialty crops title, and we have continued the progress in the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act.

As I said earlier, as I go to every part of Michigan, I meet people who have worked all their lives, paid taxes, and never imagined they would be put in a position where they would need help putting food on the table for their families. Because of this recession, which has been way too long in Michigan--it is getting better, but we have been hit harder, deeper, and longer than anywhere--a lot of families have had to ask for temporary help. And when they need it, whether it is food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be called food stamps and is now called SNAP, or whether it is help from a food bank, those families are grateful, and we should be there when they need that temporary help.

We all expect those programs to have integrity. And as someone whose State has been hit harder than anyone else's, I want to make absolutely sure these programs are in place for families who need it, and that means making absolutely sure every dollar goes to only the families who need it. That is why we are closing loopholes that allowed lottery winners--and, unbelievably, we have had at least two instances of this in Michigan, where someone won the lottery and was able to continue on food assistance. It is shameful that so many American children go to bed hungry at night and outrageous that people who have won millions of dollars in the lottery would be able to continue food assistance. So we made it absolutely clear that those individuals would be removed from SNAP immediately.

We are also cracking down on the trafficking of food assistance benefits. Right now, thanks to the efforts of the last farm bill, fraud is at an alltime low, but we can do even more. We are giving additional resources to monitor and prevent benefit trafficking, as well as cracking down on liquor and tobacco stores that are currently allowed to participate in the program.

We are making sure that only people returning to school for career and technical training are eligible for food assistance, not college students who are currently at home or being supported by their parents.

Again, with so many families and so many children in need, we can't afford to divert funds in a way that just shouldn't be there.

We must also ensure that the standards Congress created for SNAP are followed by the States. We are eliminating a gap in standards that has allowed 16 States, including Michigan, to give just $1 to people in the form of energy assistance to help them automatically qualify for additional SNAP benefits. We know families in parts of the country with high energy bills are often those who are most food insecure, and that is why we created the link between food assistance and LIHEAP. But it is clear Congress never intended for State governments to use this in a way that could jeopardize additional assistance for families with the highest utility bills.

Just like with commodity programs, we need to make sure the work we are doing has integrity and is defensible in our current budget climate, and we do this in a very careful way to make sure we do not inadvertently hurt families who truly do have significant energy costs.

In addition to increasing accountability, we are building on the success of programs that reduce hunger and improve access to healthy fruits and vegetables. We increase assistance for food banks through the Emergency Food Assistance Program. In 2010 more than 5 million people visited a food bank, and as we recover from this recession, it is absolutely critical that these organizations have food in stock to help those in need.

We are streamlining the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides food to low-income individuals, to focus on seniors, and we are moving women and children into the WIC Program, where they can be better served.

We are continuing the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which was authored originally by Senator Harkin when he was chairing the committee, and I was very proud to work with him on that. It provides free and healthy snacks to schools with a high number of low-income children, and it has been incredibly successful.

This bill triples our support for farmers markets and gives them resources to develop local infrastructure such as food hubs. And we are continuing an effort to give low-income seniors access to healthy fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and roadside stands.

We are increasing funding for innovative projects such as community gardens and urban greenhouse initiatives and protecting funding for programs that improve people's health.

I should say that all of these are done with small amounts of dollars, but they are very effective.

We are creating a national pilot modeled after Michigan's successful Double Up Food Bucks, which gives families relying on SNAP the opportunity to truly be able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for their families. We are also authorizing the Healthy Food Financing Initiative to offer loans and grants to help address the problem of food deserts in underserved communities.

We increased funding for several organic programs, which, by the way, is the fastest growing segment of American agriculture. We increased support for organic research and extension, and we nearly doubled funding for the organic cost-share program that supports farmers.

This farm bill is a jobs bill, but it is also a food bill, and the 2012 farm bill goes a long way toward making sure every mom and dad can put healthy, nutritious food on the table for their children.

As we worked through the farm bill around our table in the Agriculture Committee, we focused on streamlining and consolidating programs to get the best possible results. I think that is what people want us to do. I certainly know that is what people in Michigan want us to do. We certainly see that in conservation, but we also approached this in every part of the farm bill.

In farm credit and rural development, we are streamlining the existing laws, removing unused provisions, and making authorizations more effective and the administration more effective so that when we have a part-time mayor who is trying to figure out rural development programs, they can actually do it and they actually use what have been extremely effective programs for rural communities.

In our research title, we eliminated dozens of unused or indefensible authorizations but continued the most important research components and functions, while streamlining operations, improving accountability in the use of Federal research funds, and creating an innovative, new research foundation that matches private dollars and leverages Federal research dollars to get more innovative food and agricultural research. And I wish to thank my friend from Kansas, Senator Roberts, for his important leadership in this as well.

We funded important energy programs, invested in specialty crops and organic farming, as I mentioned, and we have done all of this while saving the Federal taxpayers $23 billion. We did it around our table in the ag room, in a bipartisan fashion, working out differences and arriving at real solutions.

In the coming days, as we get to debate on the farm bill, we will talk more about specifics, and I will join my colleagues from the committee in further explaining various aspects of the bill, and we will continue to work with all of our colleagues to find additional solutions and to improve the bill so that our farm programs work best for all of our regions and all of our States.

While I will do everything I can to work out issues with our colleagues, I wish to stress the important balance we have struck in a bipartisan effort, the reforms we have undertaken, and the work we put into making real reforms without hurting families and without hurting farmers, who are so important to our economic recovery.

I am very proud of the work we have been able to accomplish--it has been a lot of hard work--and the way we saved American taxpayers $23 billion through these reforms. I would encourage colleagues to look closely at the work we have done in the bill, to find a way to support it, to help us send a strong message to all Americans that this Congress, this Senate can make tough, smart decisions that cut spending, invest in America, and that we can do it together.

Speaking of doing it together, I could not have done this without my friend and my partner, Senator Roberts, the ranking member from Kansas. This has been a long and difficult process, but frankly there is nobody I would rather have had sitting across the table from me as we worked out this bill. Too many people look at Washington and only see dysfunction and partisanship and divisiveness. Yet we on the Agriculture Committee have found a way to work together for the good of the country, for 16 million people who depend on agriculture for their livelihood. That couldn't have happened without Senator Roberts' leadership and support, and I thank him as we move forward on this bill.


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