Friday, November 01, 2013

TOP STORY >> Vilsack ties food stamps to Farm Bill

Leader senior staff writer

If House Republicans succeed in detaching the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, from the Farm Bill, there may not be a Farm Bill in the future, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told area farmers, ranchers, agriculture leaders and officials in Little Rock on Wednesday.

Vilsack urged immediate passage of the five-year, $500 billion farm bill, which would include programs, farm support and money for SNAP.

The Senate version of the farm bill includes SNAP, but the House version doesn’t include a penny.

Meanwhile, cuts in food stamps Friday took effect for 48 million Americans, and Arkansas lost $52 million dollars worth of food-stamp funding through September 2014. That will affect all of the 17 percent of Arkansans who receive SNAP benefits. That’s because an increase authorized in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act expired on Friday.

The decrease will average about $10 a month per person, according to Amy Webb, spokesman for the state Department of Human Services.

The SNAP program has been called the largest hunger- relief program in the country.

It’s inclusion in the farm bill is strictly a numbers game, the secretary said. Very few congressmen have an agricultural constituency, while many more have an urban constituency, where there are large numbers of people who can’t afford to feed themselves and their families.


Vilsack said many Americans believe that food stamps go to people too lazy to work. In reality, “92 percent are senior citizens, disabled people, children or working poor but not earning enough to feed themselves and their families.

“The other 8 percent are required to secure work or training,” he said, although that provision has been relaxed during the economic downturn that saw hundreds of thousands of people thrown out of work.

“It would be a mistake to separate the SNAP program (from the Farm Bill),” Vilsack said. “It will be hard to pass the farm bill in the future.”

“Fifty percent of my discretionary operating budget is for fighting forest fires, the WIC program, food safety and natural disasters,” the secretary said.


“We’ve given enough and it’s time for someone else to give,” he said.

Keo fish farmer Mike Freeze, an Arkansas Farm Bureau state board member, explained it like this Friday: Arkansas: an agricultural state has four congressmen to help look after its interests, while New York City alone — with little direct interest in agriculture — has about a dozen who would not be particularly inclined to support the kind of bill the farmers here need without the SNAP being included.

Vilsack said, until they have a bill, “the producers are in limbo and can’t commit.”


The 41 members of the House/Senate conference committee have about 90 differences to resolve in what Vilsack called a food, agriculture and jobs bill.

Ark. Sen. John Boozman and First Dist. Congressman Rick Crawford are both on the joint conference committee.

Crawford voted for the committee-passed version of the bill in 2012 and 2013, which was coupled with both nutrition and farm program authorizations, according to his press secretary Jack Pandol.

“He has made clear that it was his preferred approach to do them together. However, the most important priority in his eyes is getting to a final bill that will support the needs of both producers and consumers,” Pandol said.


Vilsack said, “It is essential that this gets done and gets down now.”

Freeze and row crop farmer Dow Brantley, both of whom attended the meeting and questioned the secretary, say they think he understands the problems, but the ball is in the Congressional Conference Committee’s court.

“I think he’s on our side of the fence,” Brantley said Friday, “but his biggest job is implementation.”

Brantley said it could be a year or more before all the rules and regulations are written and farmers know what kind of help to expect and for what crop. That affects their decision on what to plant.

The United States Department of Agriculture gets the bill, then must interpret the law and train its staff before giving it to the farmers.

“It’ll take six months if it takes a day,” Brantley said. “We really need to know the score before we start.”

He said, if direct payments to farmers are cut, it might not get back into future farm bills. That’s money out of the farmers’ pockets. If the current farm bill is extended instead of a new bill, that direct money won’t be in it, he said.


Freeze said, “If we don’t have (agriculture and SNAP) coupled, we’ll never get a farm bill. Farmers don’t want it decoupled.”

Not only has the dairy industry lost 50 percent of its farms, “We’ve lost 80 percent of catfish (acreage in Arkansas) because the USDA’s inaction on catfish inspection.”

In the 2008 farm bill, inspection of catfish was transferred from the Food and Drug Administration to the Food Safety Inspection service. The effect would be to keep foreign fish, correctly or incorrectly categorized as catfish, out of the market because of the dangerous and carcinogenic chemicals often used in foreign catfish production.

That results in over supply, driving down the price for the local farmers. But Freeze said there was no definition of catfish, and the rule was never implemented.


About two years ago, there were 35,000 acres of catfish ponds in the state. This year, there are about 7,000 acres and many pond levees have been torn down. Corn and other crops were planted instead.

Vilsack told Freeze that, if he gets a new farm bill, he’ll make sure the inspection law is implemented.

Vilsack said that, in the midst of budget cutting, many in Congress looked to the Farm Bill and the SNAP program as pots of money that could be cut to aid other areas, such as defense or education.

But without a new, funded farm bill, consumers could expect to pay $8 or $9 a gallon for milk. The current, supported price is $3.42 a gallon, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.