With the anticipation of Congress returning from its Memorial Day break and returning to debate on a new farm bill, several key Louisianans have provided a view of the developing legislation from their state’s perspective.  

As the 2008 farm bill was renewed for only a year, “We’re up against a September 30 deadline to get (a new farm) bill processed,” said Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who held a joint press call with Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF). “The good news is the Senate version is much stronger for our rice producers than (the 2012 version). The (current) version has my full support.”

Rice, she continued, “is a very important industry for our state. It provides about $11.4 billion to our Louisiana economy and about 250,000 direct jobs according to the USDA.

“Farming is more than just a business, more than just a job. It’s a part of our culture and deserves our support. Whether it’s sugarcane and rice in south Louisiana or cotton in north Louisiana or cattle or aquaculture. We treasure our rural communities and the part that the farm bill plays in keeping them maintained and sustainable.”

Holding onto as much of the nutrition programs as possible is also important to Louisiana, she said. “In the farm bill we’ve also maintained, at least in the Senate version, a strong support for food aid for our people. It’s very important that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (is available) for children in Louisiana to have access to healthy food. More than 74 percent of the people in Louisiana that receive food aid are children…

“Forty-two percent of SNAP participants come from working families. It’s kind of hard to believe but 42 percent of families receiving food benefits have an income and are working. They just aren’t making enough money to keep food on the table.

As for conservation,  Landrieu said it “provides incentives to increase participation in conservation in protecting land and water resources. The program has been expanded in the Senate (farm bill). It’s very popular with our farmers and in rural communities as a way to preserve our precious wetlands and provide protections to our communities that are more vulnerable.”

Before turning the call over to Strain, Landrieu praised his efforts. “the Southern agriculture commissioners have a big lift on this because a lot of people on the (House and Senate Agriculture) Committees are from the Midwest. The Southern agriculture commissioners have a lot of hard politics that they must put into place to make sure they have the votes and support for Southern agriculture.”

Strain said Louisiana agriculture has grown 6.4 percent in the last year. Across the United States, agriculture is the fastest growing sector in the economy.

“Our exports are growing dramatically,” said Strain. “In Louisiana, in the first quarter, exports grew another 15.6 percent – more than double of any other state’s exports, predominantly (due to) agriculture.”

The farm bill, he said, “is absolutely critical. When you look at the 10-year farm bill and the $975 billion, there are many things that have been streamlined. The overall farm bill is less than 2 percent of the federal budget. However, the farm bill commodity programs (represent) less than one half of 1 percent of the federal budget. Yet, it drives the largest and most important sector of our overall economy.

“We will likely export $145 billion to $155 billion worth of product.

The farm bill sets not only priorities but also helps us move in a world economy.”

Rice, sugar, conservation

Strain played up the sugar program. “Sugar is (worth) over $3 billion for our state, now, and $1.1 billion directly for our farmers. It’s important to keep the sugar – a literally no-cost -- program in place. Other countries, specifically Brazil, massively subsidize their sugar program.”

More on the sugar program here.

What about rice?

“The program we have in place dealing with adverse market payments and setting a floor of $13.30 is critical. Rice, is worth almost $400 million in our economy.”

Strain said that the original farm bill was passed when the great Dust Bowl was being dealt with. “Here we are at a time when we’re under pressures to have a cleaner environment and to deal with run-off. That can only be done with conservation. Conservation programs are cost-sharing and beneficial.

“We’ll be working in multiple states to develop a nationwide voluntary, nutrient management program. We can work with EPA and do it on a voluntary, cost-share basis versus penalties and mandates.”

U.S. agriculture interests export “40 to 50 percent of the world’s corn, 35 percent of the world’s soybeans, and 15 percent of the world’s protein.”

One Strain concern: the average age of a U.S. farmer is nearly 60 years of age. “The farm bill is important because it helps the new and beginning farmers.”

Queried on why the current Senate farm bill is better than the 2012 version, Landrieu said the short answer is “this Senate version is much more advantageous to rice and peanuts and now has the support of the Southern agriculture alliance. That’s why I strongly support the bill.”

Strain brought up regional issues. “The previous version was disproportionately unfair to Southern crops – specifically, rice and peanuts. The initial discussion was that the money that was no longer available for direct payments would be invested into a more affordable and crop insurance.”

When looking at how crop insurance has been done in the past, “our premiums were much higher than in other areas of the country and actually paid out less,” said Strain. “So, the overall discussion was it would be made much more fair and equitable. But the (2012) Senate version wasn’t fair to rice in that respect, nor to peanuts.”

The current Senate farm bill is better because of “the availability of different types of crop insurance programs, basic revisions and revenue protection,” said Strain. “Also, we now have a base price for rice of $13.30 per hundredweight.”