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

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. WYDEN. Madam President, I came to the floor to talk about legislating. I was struck, in fact, by the comments recently because what I am here to talk about is essentially the yeoman's bipartisanship we have seen with Senator Stabenow and Senator Roberts on the farm bill. I am going to talk about some specific ideas, each of which I believe could win bipartisan support and help strengthen the legislation as we go forward in the Senate.

I believe it is hard to overstate the importance of writing the best possible farm bill in the Senate. When America desperately needs more jobs, and 1 in every 12 American jobs is tied to agriculture, this bill is an opportunity for the private sector to grow more jobs. When obesity rates are driving the American health care challenge, this bill can promote healthier eating without extra cost to taxpayers. When we are concerned about the threat to our treasured lands and air and water, this bill is our primary conservation program. When our rural communities are especially hard hit, and the Presiding Officer knows about this because she has a lot of rural country in her State, these rural communities are walking on an economic tightrope, and this bill can be a lifeline.

I spent much of last week in rural Oregon. In my State, Oregonians do a lot of things well, but what we do best is grow things--lots of things. Oregon grows more than 250 different crops, including everything from alfalfa seed to mint and blueberries. Several weeks ago, the Oregon Extension Service reported that agricultural sales in my home State increased more than 19 percent in 2011.

Agriculture in Oregon is now more than a $5 billion industry annually, and much of this is driven by high prices for wheat and cattle and dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and other specialty crops. The fact is, agriculture is the lodestar to prosperity for many rural Oregon communities. Nationwide, there are many other towns in a similar position to the small communities I have the honor to represent in

the Senate.

That is what is apropos about this talk and the need for bipartisanship. Senator Schumer listed a number of these bipartisan areas. I consulted with the chair of the Agriculture Committee, Senator Stabenow, and the ranking member, Senator Roberts, who I also served with in the other body. After getting their counsel, I selected 28 Oregonians, from every corner of my State and across all types of agriculture, to help serve as an advisory committee on ways to improve the economic opportunities for Oregon, specifically through this bill.

We have the good fortune to have the committee chaired by Mrs. Karla Chambers, who owns a farm in the Willamette Valley, Stahlbush Farms, and also Mike Thorne, a wheat farmer in eastern Oregon.

From the outset, this advisory committee did not talk at all about politics, did not talk about whether there was a Democratic way to write a farm bill or a Republican way to write a farm bill. What they did talk about was the importance of the issues I have just outlined: jobs, health care, conservation, rural communities. That is what they spent their time focused on and particularly the jobs issue was central to their discussion.

There are about 38,000 farms in my home State which roughly support 234,000 jobs. That is about 11 percent of our State's employment. As much as 80 percent of the agricultural goods produced in Oregon are sold out of State. Half of that is exported to foreign countries. That is especially important to me because I chair the trade subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee. So what I have taken as the centerpiece of my approach to agriculture and to our country's economy is that we ought to do our very best to: grow things in the United States, to add value to them in the United States, and then ship them somewhere.

It is especially important for Oregon agriculture. As I just noted, 80 percent of the agricultural goods that are produced in our State are sold out of State.

Abroad, our producers are doing very well. Nationally, each $1 billion in agricultural exports is tied to approximately 8,400 American jobs. These growing overseas markets represent a way to create and sustain good-paying jobs that rely on export sales. In fact, agriculture is one of the only sectors with a trade surplus, and in 2011, it boasted a surplus totaling $42.5 billion--the highest annual surplus on record.

That is why I was honored to have a chance--when Chairman Baucus was tied up in discussions with respect to the super committee--to manage a significant part of the debate on the three recently passed free-trade agreements, which again give us a chance, as I have indicated, to build on that proposition that I have outlined, where we grow things here, add value to them here, and then ship them somewhere else.

Nothing says that more than giving those opportunities to producers from Oregon to Florida. They sell their fruits and vegetables, their wheat, their beef, their nursery crops, and other high-value products at home and abroad. The farm bill continues those programs that American producers rely on to help market their goods in foreign markets. I think it is important again to stress the bipartisanship associated with making sure there are bountiful opportunities for American agriculture and particularly for Oregon agricultural goods.

The second area my agriculture advisory committee focused on was stressing the importance of healthy nutrition here at home. Of course, the USDA, our Department of Agriculture, has recommended eating five fresh fruits and vegetables daily.

What that means is that from Burns, OR, to Bangor, ME, farm programs need to make it easier for those with low incomes to be able to eat healthier. There never ought to be a tradeoff between health and affordable food. So I think we have to look at some fresh approaches to promote healthy nutrition in this country. I believe it is not just an economic threat to our economy, it is also a national security threat to our Nation because we have seen, regrettably, that many Americans who would like to wear the uniform of the United States, patriots, have not been able to pass the health standards necessary to serve in our military.

In the past three decades, obesity rates have quadrupled for children ages 6 to 11. More than 40 percent of Americans are expected to be obese by 2030. The Centers for Disease Control reports that in 2008 alone, the United States spent $147 billion on medical care related to obesity. Obesity is the top medical reason one in four young people cannot join the military, and it has been identified by the Department of Defense as a threat to national security. It doesn't have to be this way.

I wish to outline some specific ideas for changing that and to promote good health in our country without adding extra costs to taxpayers. One opportunity for change is through the Farm to School Program. Again, without costing taxpayers additional money, it ought to be easier for delicious pears, cherries, and other healthy produce, grown just a few miles down the road, to make it into our schools. This ought to be a national approach. Schools from Springfield, OR, to Savannah, GA, currently purchase their fruits and vegetables from USDA--the Department of Agriculture--warehouses, which may be hundreds of miles away. Many of our farmers and our producers would like to sell their goods to local schools, and many schools would like to source their produce locally. The farm bill ought to promote that.

When I was in Oregon last week, I had a chance to meet with the management of Harry & David. They are a major employer in my State, and an Oregon pear producer. They told me they want to sell their fruit to schools down the street, but instead a complex maze of Federal rules and regulations has created a hassle for them, and the process sounds like bureaucratic water torture. So I am going to offer an amendment that would make it less of a hassle for producers such as Harry & David and farmers to sell directly to local schools, all without spending additional Federal dollars.

A second opportunity to improve our Nation's health lies with the SNAP program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. This program currently spends over $70 billion a year. This is the big expenditure in the farm bill, and there is no way to really determine whether it promotes good nutrition. Think of all of the possibilities for helping our country, all the possible benefits if the SNAP program did more to improve nutritional outcomes for those who use the program.

Let me make clear that I am not for cutting benefits. I understand the crucial lifeline this program provides for millions of our people. What I am interested in doing is seeing that, through that $70 billion, it is possible to improve nutritional outcomes, all while getting the best value out of that enormous expenditure.

One of the ways we could do it would be to allow States to obtain a waiver from the SNAP program when they bring their farmers, their retailers, their health specialists, and their beneficiaries together and say: We have a consensus for improving the nutritional outcomes in our State, for those on the Food Stamp Program, the SNAP program. They ought to be able to get a waiver in order to do that and help us produce more good health in America. That is not some kind of national nanny program. That is not telling people they can only eat this or that. It is just common sense to have farmers, retailers, those on the program, and health specialists look, for example, to try to create some voluntarily incentive to promote better nutrition with this enormous expenditure, and I intend to offer an amendment to do that.

A third opportunity for improvement is through what is known as gleaning. Historically, gleaners gathered leftover produce from the fields, but today gleaners play a crucial role in reducing the staggering amount of food that goes to waste each year. At a time when food waste is the single largest category of waste in our local landfills--more than 34 million tons of food--again, without spending extra taxpayer money, we can do more to ensure that this unwanted food is used to tackle hunger in America.

Led by the dedicated work of local food banks, many are striving to put America's food bounty to better use. In Portland, OR, Tracy Oseran runs a wonderful nonprofit organization known as Urban Gleaners. They are poised to collect surplus food--hundreds of thousands of pounds of food--from grocers, restaurants, parties, and all kinds of social organizations, and they redistribute those hundreds of thousands of pounds of food to organizations that serve the hungry. Urban Gleaners is doing great work, but they could be doing a lot more.

Without spending a dime of extra money, we can advocate for gleaners all across America by making it possible for them to receive loans through the Microloan Program. If someone is trying to set up a gleaning program in a small town and they have to borrow, say, $20,000 to start a refrigeration program to preserve the quality of the food, let's make it possible for the gleaners to do that.

I am not proposing--and I discussed this with the chair of the committee, Senator Stabenow, and Senator Roberts, the ranking minority member--to allocate one additional dime to the program. I think it is a fine program. I simply want to say that when we have gleaners in our country who are telling us about the enormous amount of food that is still wasted despite their tremendous efforts, let's not pass up an opportunity to, with this bill, make it possible to promote gleaning in our country.

To produce the healthy food needed to feed America, we need fertile agricultural land, and conservation plays a central role in that. Roughly 28 percent of Oregon's land mass is devoted to agricultural production. Maintaining this land is crucial for our long-term productivity. For more than half a century, the farm bill has supported infrastructure modernization and conservation projects. They give, once again, the opportunity for collaboration, and that is key to our natural resources.

I see my friend from Arizona, Senator McCain, here. We talked about doing this in the forestry area years ago. We ought to be promoting collaborative projects to boost rural economies. It is the Oregon way, and we ought to build on that in this farm bill as well.

The time is also ripe to promote farmers markets and locally grown food, which will lead to greater awareness of local markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture. This farm bill expands those opportunities,

and I think these types of local initiatives give us the opportunity to change the trajectory--the tragic and staggering trajectory--of obesity in this country, and to ensure the viability of these programs, the land required to produce nutritious foods must be addressed.

I plan to offer, as I have indicated in these comments, a number of amendments to the farm bill, each of which I have discussed with the chair of the committee, Senator Stabenow, and ranking member, Senator Roberts.

The farm-to-school amendment that I will offer would not spend additional taxpayer money, but it would make it easier for schools to purchase locally for the breakfast, lunches, and snacks they serve children.

My second amendment would allow States across this country to get a waiver under the SNAP program, so they can consult with their farmers, their retailers, their health specialists, and those who use it, and try to come up with a way to get more good health and nutrition out of the $70 billion that is spent on the program. States ought to have an opportunity to do that so that the SNAP program can be a launch pad for healthier eating rather than just a conveyor belt for calories. With a waiver, States with innovation and effective ideas could improve nutritional outcomes and put their good ideas into action.

Third, I intend to offer an amendment--again, it doesn't spend additional taxpayer money--to promote gleaning through the Microloan Program.

Finally, based on the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine, I will offer an amendment to make it possible to advance some of the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine to look at the relationship between agriculture policy, the diet of the average American, and how we can reduce childhood obesity. This amendment would give us a chance to advance the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine. They have made a number of thoughtful proposals that I think will give us a chance to reduce obesity and promote our national security, and we certainly should pursue them through this farm bill.

The last comment I will make is that I think Oregonians got it right, and I think we ought to be building on the work done by Senator Stabenow and Senator Roberts. At a crucial time in American history, this bill can help us grow more jobs, it can help us improve the health of the people of our country without spending additional money, and it is an opportunity to protect our treasured land and air and water. Finally, it is a lifeline for rural communities--these communities that I have described as walking on an economic tight rope.

I intend to work with my colleagues on a bipartisan basis. I have heard all this talk about how the legislating is over. We ought to build on the work that has been done already and get this important bill across the finish line because it will be good for our economy, for our national security, and it will be good for our health and for our environment.

Madam President, I yield the floor.


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