By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The Senate is expected to begin floor debate on the farm bill next week, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told reporters Tuesday afternoon
The Senate Agriculture Committee passed its version of the farm bill -- officially called the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 -- on a vote of 15-5 Tuesday.
Following a speech to members of the Organic Trade Association, Stabenow said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would introduce a motion to proceed on the farm bill as early as Wednesday, assuming senators complete debate on the reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act.
Late Tuesday, an email from the Senate Agriculture Committee said the farm bill was filed on the floor. The Senate will have to wait two days before Reid can file a cloture motion and begin official debate on the legislation. That effectively means debate on the bill would begin next week. "Next week, I would expect, we would be on the bill," Stabenow said.
Some Republicans on the Senate Agriculture Committee criticized the bill Tuesday, particularly over the inclusion of target prices. They opposed the federal government continuing to set prices for crops and brought up the risk of a possible World Trade Organization challenge. Still, Stabenow stuck to her argument that this legislation continues to reform farm programs by eliminating direct payments and scoring $24 billion in savings over 10 years.
"This really is a reform farm bill," Stabenow said. "This is my fourth farm bill, and things happen in steps ... We have moved this bill, over time, in the right direction."
Moreover, Stabenow praised farm and conservation groups for coming together to strike a deal that would tie conservation program compliance to eligibility for crop insurance premium subsidies. Stabenow and others on the committee staved off attempts Tuesday to strike that language. "This is a big deal. It's a really important step," she said.
Stabenow told members of the organic lobby there will be pressure to push for more cuts once the Senate and House pass their respective versions of the farm bill and go to conference. There is no area where that will be a bigger deal than nutrition, where the Senate proposes cutting $4 billion over 10 years, while the House bill seeks more than $20 billion in cuts.
"This is going to be one of our toughest fights with the House," she said.
It's worth noting that one of Stabenow's discussions Tuesday about the new farm bill after the committee concluded its business came in an afternoon talk to the Organic Trade Association. Stabenow highlighted how the bill works to strengthen organic and local food production.
For Stabenow, reform in the farm bill also translates into moving more money into fruit and vegetable programs, organic crop production and local foods. Stabenow noted House members had opposed adding horticulture and specialty crop programs in the farm bill when she served on the House Agriculture Committee in the 1990s.
Now, the House farm bill proposes spending $141 million more than the Senate bill, over 10 years, for horticulture programs. Stabenow noted "it's totally flipped," partially because the House will need the support of members who back organic programs to pass the legislation.
"They actually put in more money than in the Senate. This is great," Stabenow said. "I love a bidding war."
Stabenow said the Senate farm bill would triple funding for local foods and farmers markets, spending $100 million over five years for those programs, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The House bill goes up to $150 million over 10 years. The Senate bill also would spend about $141 million over 10 years on specialty-crop block grants. The House bumps that spending to $232 million.
Stabenow and other backers of organic programs are rebuilding them after the farm-bill extension that passed in early January with the tax bill did not provide any funds to extend organic programs. "So we are restoring all of those programs for organics," she said.
The Senate bill also includes spending for technology upgrades at USDA to run the organic program, as well as boost enforcement for people who are fraudulently using the USDA organic seal.
The Senate bill also would create a checkoff program dedicated to organic-labeled food. That's been a priority for the Organic Trade Association. "It is in the bill as it goes to the floor," Stabenow said.
Organic farmers would also see more opportunities for conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program.
Both the Senate and House bills also improve crop-insurance options for organic farmers, as well as fruit and vegetable producers. "This is going to be very important for us as we develop crop insurance as the main risk-management tool in the farm bill," Stabenow said.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also talked to OTA members Tuesday and USDA announced some changes to help boost organic production. In particular, USDA is doing more to train its staff to help organic producers learn about and qualify for USDA programs. Vilsack also said USDA is removing the organic surcharge on crop insurance for organic farmers. "There is positive forward movement in organic production in this country and we're committed to it," Vilsack told the group.
In a news release, USDA stated the department is asking each agency to routinely address the needs of the organic sector in their programs and services, where appropriate. The Risk Management Agency also will be adding more insurance options for organic crops, which includes changing organic transitional yields.
Vilsack told OTA members USDA is committed to organic production, but he does not have the luxury of supporting only one type of agricultural production.
"I'm going to be pushing everything and anything that gives us a chance to tell those young people, 'You have got a chance to live and work in a small town,'" Vilsack said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at email@example.com
© Copyright 2013 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.