The senator who helped give U.S. farmers Freedom to Farm is introducing legislation that would once again overturn most of the counter-cyclical payment and marketing loan provisions of the 2002 farm bill.

Vowing to bypass the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., will take alternate farm bill legislation directly to the Senate floor. Expecting no major farm bill reforms out of the committee, Lugar and co-sponsor Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., say the Farm Ranch Equity Stewardship and Health (FRESH) Act will fill the gap.

“The committee bill that’s poised to pass, would increase market-distorting subsidies,” said Lugar on Oct. 23, a day before the expected Senate Agriculture Committee farm bill markup. “It risks retaliation against all of our farm exports, because it perpetuates a cotton program that, repeatedly, has been found to violate world trading rules.”

Lugar, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee when Freedom to Farm was included in the 1996 farm bill, believes dealing with fellow politicians on the floor rather than in committee strengthens FRESH Act’s chances. Wherever FRESH is introduced, the odds of Southern legislators signing on are poor since the bill is especially unfriendly to subsidies on corn, cotton, rice, soybeans or wheat.

FRESH would massively overhaul farm subsidies that Lugar claims are unfair and assist large farmers at the expense of the whole nation’s agricultural health. Instead of subsidies, the reform bill would provide a federally backed insurance program that would be free for all growers.

“For the first time, each farmer would receive expanded county-based crop insurance policies, that would cover either 85 percent of expected crop revenue or yield or 80 percent of a farm’s five-year average adjusted gross revenue,” said Lugar.

The savings — some estimate $16 billion — would fund, among other things, feeding and conservation programs along with biofuel research.

Not surprisingly, shortly after Lugar’s announcement, a coalition of reform-minded groups lauded the alternative plan during a press conference. Statements came from government watchdogs to physicians to environmentalists.

“Environmental Defense praises … the senators for introducing legislation that offers significant reforms to crop subsidies,” said Tim Male, senior scientist with Environmental Defense. “The FRESH Act invests reform savings in a better safety net that helps more farmers. Current farm subsidies help only a third of American farmers. Farm policy puts the greatest taxpayer cost into one program: direct payments, which pays farmers completely unrelated to their needs.

“In contrast, (FRESH) expands crop insurance tools to insure most farm revenues from most regional and national weather-related disasters or market drops. It provides this insurance at no cost to farmers and provides expanded insurance policies regardless of what they grow.

“Over five years, the FRESH Act offers more than $6 billion in new conservation investments. (Such) investments will help farmers who volunteer to provide cleaner water and air, improve wildlife habitat, and protect working farms.

“Currently, two out of three farmers and ranchers who offer to partner on conservation are rejected because of inadequate funding. If enacted, the FRESH Act’s new investments would make a significant impact on national, regional and local environmental problems across America.”

Jim Lyons, Oxfam America vice president for policy and communications, said, “It takes a great deal of leadership to see that farm policy is need of new direction and vision. It takes courage to advocate for that change.

“The farm bill is in desperate need of real reform. (Those participating) are mostly large-scale farmers. Unfortunately, of those that participate only a small percentage get most of the benefits.

“Subsidies encourage overproduction and create a glut in markets that lower prices and affect the livelihoods of family farmers in America and around the world. We conducted a study of the effects of cotton subsidies on producers in West Africa. (It was) found that cotton subsidies have a direct impact on West Africans, many of whom live on $1 per day. If (U.S.) subsidies were totally eliminated, over 1 million households in West Africa would realize the benefits.

“Americans want to see changes. We know this because we conducted a study of likely voters in the 42 freshman Democratic districts in the House. We found six of 10 likely voters in those districts, primarily rural, thought there’s a need for changes in farm policy and the existing farm programs disadvantage family farmers.

“The question remains: is the Senate willing to take up the matter and demonstrate the same courage (of) Sen. Lugar and Sen. Lautenberg in moving forward with reform? All indications are that isn’t likely the case. Our hope is Congress is willing to take a fresh look at farm policy.”

Scott Faber, vice president for federal affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers of America and Food Products Association claimed, “There’s never been a better time to craft a farm safety net that’s as modern and entrepreneurial as our farmers. Farm income and land values are at record levels. And farm household income is now more than $80,000 per year, far more than most Americans.

“It’s time to recognize that America’s farmers haven’t only joined the middle class, but the investor class. They’re as comfortable with a spreadsheet as they are spreading manure.

“The FRESH Act proposes a modern safety net that will help farmers weather the ups and downs of agriculture without violating trade commitments or raising taxes.”

Neil Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, asked why the United States has “epidemics of diet-related diseases and ranks, believe it or not, 38th in life expectancy? A big part of the reason is subsidized livestock feed and diary products … make greasy cheeseburgers and sausage pizza artificially cheap and especially plentiful in schools and food assistance programs.

“The American Medical Association has called for subsidies and food-assistance programs to be based on the health of constituents, not on agribusiness considerations. That means fruits, vegetables, grains and healthy vegetarian food.

“The FRESH Act is the first step towards solving (diet-related illnesses) and we’re very pleased to support it for the health of all Americans.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com