Senators took to the chamber floor on Wednesday (May 22) to debate a new farm bill. Topics ranged from budget issues to conservation, GMO labeling, agricultural research funding and the sugar program.

Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss backed a new program, the Adverse Market Protection, as it “seeks to serve the needs of those not protected by the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and crop insurance programs. It is imperative that the farm safety net provide protection for multi-year declines – especially for Southern crops like rice and peanuts since the protection provided by ARC and crop insurance isn’t sufficient.”

Chambliss also addressed pending upland cotton policies that “represent fundamental reform in the support provided to cotton farmers. (Those) reforms contribute $2.8 billion towards savings in the committee’s budget target. The legislation eliminates, or changes, all Title 1 programs providing direct support for those involved in cotton production. It puts us down the path to resolving our WTO dispute with Brazil.”

Chambliss, who has announced he will not seek reelection, also supports a provision in the bill, “that ties conservation compliance to crop insurance. … The compromise will provide a strong safety net for our farmers and natural resources while allowing them to be wise stewards of taxpayer resources.”

Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said currently farmers that “want to participate in Title 1 commodity programs – including the current direct payment subsidy program – must take steps to use best conservation practices on their land when it comes to highly-erodible soil and wetlands.”

The new farm bill would eliminate direct payments. “Instead, we’re strengthening crop insurance,” said Stabenow. “Here’s the issue: if we eliminate direct payment subsidies we don’t want to create unintended consequences by not having the link (to conservation) any longer. It’s important to all of us that sensitive lands be managed in the best possible way. That’s how we avoided having a ‘dust bowl’ during the droughts.”

Commodity groups and conservation groups “were on different sides of this issue for a long time.” However, “they listened to each other and tried to see the other’s viewpoint. … They were able to come together with a plan that conserves soil and water resources for generations to come and protects the safety net our farmers rely on.”

Stabenow said the agreement reached is “historic. … We want (farmers) to have crop insurance. Amendments that weaken crop insurance would reduce the number of farmers participating in crop insurance, raising premiums for family farmers and reduce the environmental impacts and benefits.”

The new agreement’s math is very simple, said Stabenow. “The more acres in crop insurance, the more we have environmental and conservation benefits.”

Sugar

The sugar program was addressed repeatedly by lawmakers throughout the day. “Some of our colleagues are trying to strip the sugar program out of the bill,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who pointed out 30,000 jobs based in Minnesota’s Red River region rely on the industry. “American sugar is actually much less expensive than the price in the global marketplace. The sugar program works. It works for workers, it works for America.”

The back-and-forth on the sugar program was kicked off in earnest when New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen – claiming the commodity was the only one not touched in the proposed farm bill -- offered an amendment that would have done away with current sugar policies.

The amendment pushback was swift. Without the sugar policies, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp argued, some 142,000 jobs could be affected.

Shaheen’s amendment failed on a 44 to 54 vote.

Late in the day, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu thanked fellow lawmakers for voting the sugar amendment down as the program, “has worked at no cost to the taxpayer. … There are two sides to this issue and I think the evidence on our side is stronger.”

In Louisiana, Landrieu continued, sugarcane is being produced on over 427,000 in 22 parishes. Production is about 14 million tons – about 20 percent of the total sugar produced in the United States.

“Last year, Louisiana sugar mills produced 1.6 tons of raw sugar, the largest amount ever produced in our state. This production represents a huge part of our state’s economy and the loss of market for these products would be devastating.”

States with large sugar beet crops are similarly dependent on the sugar program, Landrieu said. “Are consumers hurt by this? Absolutely not. The U.S. sugar price is 14 percent below the world average and 24 percent below the average for developed nations. So, our policy is a good balance of encouraging domestic production and keeping prices stable and affordable for the consumer.”