The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 will provide a “balanced” approach that will help farmers in different regions of the country continue to provide a safe, reliable and abundant supply of food and fiber.

That was the message Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Nutrition, delivered as she spoke to members of the Delta Council at the organization’s 78th annual meeting on the Delta State University Campus in Cleveland, Miss.

Later, Stabenow, flanked by Sen. Thad Cochran, the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee; Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi’s junior senator; and Delta Council President Bill Litton, repeated much the same message during a press briefing for members of the local and agricultural media.

“We’ve tried to look at every region and see what needs to be done,” said Stabenow, referring to the new farm bill, which the Senate began debating on Monday (May 20). “It is reform, it is more market-oriented, which it needs to be, but it really balances the regions of the country.

'Sweet spot'

“I think we have put together a bill that really defines that ‘sweet spot’ in balance. I’d love it if the House would just take up our bill.”

During the press briefing, Stabenow, who became chair of the Agriculture Committee following the defeat of Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln in 2010, said the most difficult part of writing the new farm bill had been moving toward a more risk-based system with increased emphasis on subsidized federal crop insurance coverage.

“Right now, crop insurance doesn’t work in every region of the country,” she noted. “Rice, peanuts and cotton basically don’t have crop insurance. Cotton is involved with a crop insurance program (STAX) that has been put into the bill.”

The Michigan Democrat said her committee worked to strengthen crop insurance coverage in the new legislation, which shifts funding from the direct payments of the last three farm bills to a broader crop insurance-based risk management program.

“We’ve put into place a yield loss program that will be more helpful for Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, those regions toward the middle of the country, and then we have something that is based on the counter-cyclical program, what we’re calling the adverse marketing program which basically will provide more help to crops like rice and peanuts.”

Jobs bill....

But the legislation is more than expanded crop insurance programs. “It’s a jobs bill… it’s a trade bill… it’s a reform bill… it’s a conservation bill… and it’s a kitchen table bill…,” she said. “Thanks to the farm bill, families all across America will sit down around a table tonight and enjoy the bounty of the world’s safest, most abundant, and most affordable food supply.”

Responding to critics who claim such farm legislation is no longer needed, Stabenow said Congress will pass a new farm bill because farmers are in the riskiest business in the world.

“And that’s why the top goal of the Agriculture Reform bill is risk management. We are reforming farm programs – ending direct payments and other subsidies – and instead giving farmers market-based risk management tools. We want to make sure that a farm that’s been passed down for generations doesn’t face bankruptcy because of a drought or other events outside the farmer’s control.”

In many parts of the country last year, farmers battled drought conditions worse than what their ancestors faced in the Dust Bowl. “But we didn’t have a dust bowl,” she noted. “We didn’t have out-of-control erosion. That’s because of the work that’s been done in the farm bill around conservation.”

Largest investment

She called the farm bill the country’s largest investment in land and water conservation on private lands, helping farmers improve 1.9 million acres of land for wildlife habitats. “Healthy wildlife habitats and clean, fishable waters are not only good for our environment, but they also support hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation that benefits our economy and creates jobs, 6 million jobs, in fact.”

Including the cuts that took effect earlier this year, the Senate version of the legislation reduces spending by $24 billion, she said, noting the figure is more than double the cuts proposed by the Simpson-Bowles Commission in 2010, and four times more than imposed by the sequestration cuts at the beginning of 2013.

The House farm bill, which was passed out of the House Agriculture Committee on May 15, contains significantly higher cuts, but many of those occur in the nutrition programs that have traditionally been funded in the five-year farm bill.

If those provisions remain in the House version of the farm bill, Stabenow indicated it is likely to become a major sticking point when the House and Senate Agriculture Committees meet to resolve their differences in conference.

“It’s not about the number (in the spending cuts), it’s about how it affects the family,” she said in response to a question about the House Ag Committee bill’s reduction in nutrition benefits. “You could say the same thing about crop insurance. There are people who want to cap the payment on crop insurance who say that people who earn over a certain level shouldn’t receive crop insurance.

“I can argue the same thing when it comes to cuts in the basic structure of the nutrition programs. If we were doing a 3 percent cut in crop insurance we would hear from all the farm groups, and I think justifiably so.”

President Steele

During the Delta Council annual meeting, which has been held in recent years at the Bologna Performing Arts Center, outgoing President Bill Litton announced that Gibb Steele, a rice producer from Greenville, Miss., will be the president of Delta Council in 2013-14.

Steele, who has served on the Mississippi Rice Council and the Mississippi Rice Promotion Board, said he first learned about the reputation of the Delta Council when he traveled to California as part of a producer information exchange tour.

“While I was there, I met a grower named Mel Andrus who talked about how he wished California had an organization as effective as the Delta Council,” said Steele. “When I returned to the Delta, I began trying to learn everything I could about the Delta Council.”

Serving with Steele as vice presidents of the Delta Council in 2013-2014 will be Michael Aguzzi, Cleveland, Miss.; Richy Bibb III, Tunica, Miss.; Thomas Edwards, Ruleville, Miss.; Paul Hollis, Anguilla, Miss.; Irene Long, Indianola, Miss.; and Charles McClintock, Holly Bluff, Miss. John Pittman of Greenwood, Miss., will serve as treasurer.