Senators from the South are explaining their “no” votes following the Thursday passage of the $1 trillion Senate farm bill. A final tally of 65-34 ensured the legislation’s win, but a large number of Southern lawmakers were included in the minority.

Those who followed the Senate proceedings will not be surprised at the development. Claiming a lack of regional balance, no Southern senator on the Senate Agriculture Committee voted for the bill coming out of committee.

For more, see here.

Southern producers – particularly those with rice, peanuts and wheat – have complained for months that the committee’s program preferences didn’t take into account the unique cropping circumstances and inputs required in the region.

The Senate farm bill gets rid of direct payments and counter-cyclical farm programs. In their place it establishes the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) revenue insurance program that many in the South say benefits Midwest grain while leaving Southern producers facing price volatility and an insufficient safety net.

In the run-up to the bill’s final vote, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss – a former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee – and South Dakota Sen. John Thune worked on an amendment that would have allowed rice and peanut producers target price supports. However, after speaking with Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, the pair withdrew the amendment in hopes the issue will be dealt with in conference. 

More on the amendments here.

“As I weighed this bill’s impact on Georgia and the Southeast, I was simply unable to support it in its present form,” said Chambliss following the farm bill’s passage. “This bill contains significant reform with the elimination of direct payments, and makes several improvements to crop insurance. I have always been an advocate of risk management tools delivered through the private sector. But this bill seeks to establish a one-size-fits-all program rather than recognizing the limitations of crop insurance for certain regions of the country, namely the Southeast. The new commodity title program, the ARC program will provide corn and soybean growers in the Midwest with a minimal band of revenue protection while leaving producers of other crops in other regions very little protection and certainty. If this bill were to become law without significant changes, producers in the Southeast would be left without an effective safety net.”

Crop insurance, continued Chambliss “is a tool that addresses risk in an individual crop year. It does not work as a safety net by insuring against multiple-year price declines, nor is it a cure-all for a commodity market that can expand and contract based on the vagaries of weather, disease and international events. That is why farm policy in the past encouraged programs such as the marketing loan and the counter-cyclical program to work with, not in competition with, crop insurance…

“We must remember that the farm bill should help farmers and ranchers manage a combination of challenges largely out of their own control. We also must remember that it is not an entitlement for any one region or commodity. This bill needs to serve all producers in all parts of the country equitably and effectively.”

One-size-fits-all disparaged

The one-size-fits-all approach was also disparaged by Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. “Mississippi is fortunate to have some of the most fertile soil in the world, and agriculture remains the cornerstone of our state’s economy. Unfortunately, farmers across the South will suffer a disproportionate loss of support under the bill the Senate adopted. I had hoped that reasonable modifications could be made to ensure the farm bill provides fair producer options to all regions of the country. The one-size-fits-all approach in the Senate bill places unfair burdens on some crops and regions, and puts them at a distinct disadvantage for investing in rural infrastructure and agriculture-related jobs.

“With planting decisions already being distorted by policies outside of the farm bill, it is even more imperative that farm bill policy not further incentivize commodity production in certain regions at the expense of others.”

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker also voted against the Senate farm bill. “Americans depend on access to quality agricultural products produced by Mississippi’s farmers. The bill before the Senate today failed to recognize the realities faced by Southern producers. I remain hopeful that a workable solution can be reached for all of America’s farmers as this process continues.”

The Mississippi Farm Bureau backed Cochran and Wicker’s views. Following careful review, said the organization’s president Randy Knight, “we feel like the bill put forth by the Senate has true potential to leave many of Mississippi’s farmers and ranchers without a viable safety net in times of uncertainty. Certain commodities were left with little means to mitigate major risks in the market, leaving these farmers with virtually no farm safety net.

“We have strong commodity prices right now, but we all know these prices will not remain this high. When these markets change, Mississippi’s farmers need a viable safety net to provide stability for the sake of our domestic source of food. This farm bill simply doesn’t provide such protection for several of Mississippi’s commodities. We feel like the House of Representatives will work on legislation that may provide more favorable support for these commodities.  We certainly hope the House and Senate can come to an agreement in conference on a bill that provides the protection many of our members need.”

For Arkansas Farm Bureau’s reaction, see here.

The USA Rice Federation weighed in with a warning to all farmers, regardless of their crop choice. “Sadly, while the Senate farm bill appears to harm only Southern agriculture, the effects of a long-term decline in crop prices would be felt by producers of all crops because this farm bill would fail them.”

The federation also provided a list of how senators from major rice growing states voted: Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt -- yes; Arkansas Sen. John Boozman -- no; California Sen. Barbara Boxer -- yes; Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran -- no; Texas Sen. John Cornyn – no; California Sen. Dianne Feinstein – yes; Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison – yes; Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu – no; Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill – yes; Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor – no; Louisiana Sen. David Vitter – no;
Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) – no.

A statement from the National Cotton Council said the cotton industry “has reservations about a number of provisions in the Senate-passed legislation, but believes that the cotton title will facilitate successful resolution of the cotton component of the Brazil WTO dispute. The cotton industry looks forward to working with the leaders of the House Agriculture Committee and Cotton Belt members as they develop their version of new farm legislation.

“It is clear that U.S. cotton farmers are willing to make a significant contribution to deficit reduction and are committed to reform farm policy in a way that allows them to manage risks that are beyond their control. It is important for Congress to complete and the president to sign, in a timely manner, new farm legislation that is balanced, stable and predictable.”

For more farm bill coverage, see here.