Budget opens Farm Bill wounds

Agriculture lobbyists are fighting proposals from the Obama administration that would reopen the Farm Bill less than a year after it was signed.

They argue that the tough payment-limit restrictions proposed in Obama’s budget would hurt family farmers already suffering through the recession. The administration defended the new subsidy limits as saving taxpayer money that otherwise would be funneled to corporate farms.

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The administration’s main proposal is to prohibit subsidies from going to farmers with gross sales higher than $500,000. This is much tougher than the 2008 Farm Bill, which cut off subsidies to farmers with adjusted gross incomes above $750,000.

New restrictions on crop insurance have also upset the farm lobby, while rules on cotton storage would hurt Southern producers in particular.

The proposals have angered even some Democrats in Congress, who battled for years to produce the 2008 Farm Bill.

“We are going to have to go to the Hill now and have to be more vigilant than ever,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). “We were not expecting cuts so deep so soon.”

AFBF members from 30 states began flying into Washington last week to meet with lawmakers. Delegations from Delaware and Louisiana visited this week, with Kentucky farmers on Capitol Hill a week earlier. Thatcher said they have been tasked to lobby against the proposed budget cuts for subsidy programs.

“We will pull out all the guns on this budget resolution,” Thatcher said.

Farm lobbyists were surprised by the budget proposal, particularly since Obama voted for the 2008 Farm Bill. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the GOP’s presidential candidate, opposed it.

Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association, said his members expressed shock at the cuts during a convention last week in Texas for soybean and corn growers. He said his group received no call from the administration warning that the cuts were coming.

They are particularly irritated that Obama is shifting from limits on adjusted gross income to limits on gross sales, which do not take into account most farming costs, like buying new equipment.

There’s also an annoyance that Obama is reopening a debate many feel was just settled.

“Congress debated and overwhelmingly approved a Farm Bill that included many reforms to the cotton program, including cotton storage,” said a spokeswoman for Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Agriculture panel.

“Proposing an elimination of cotton storage credits is an old idea that did not prevail during the Farm Bill debate and does not have Sen. Chambliss’s support,” said spokeswoman Erin Hamm.

The White House has defended the proposed cuts, saying they would save taxpayer funds from going to big corporations.

“Family farmers are critical both to America’s rural communities as well as America’s economy, and that’s why the president’s budget promotes efforts that strengthen small- and medium-sized farms — not large agribusinesses,” said Reid Cherlin, a White House spokesman. “The budget makes real investments in rural America, providing much stronger support for family farmers — most of whom will receive a tax cut in this budget, along with millions of other working Americans like them.”

As an Illinois senator, Obama was seen as supportive of farm programs, and battled for a Farm Bill provision to provide relief to black farmers discriminated against by the Agriculture Department. As a result, some farm lobbyists are surprised by the proposed cuts.

“The president and the Democratic leadership was very supportive of the bill and overrode two vetoes. That was just a few months ago. We still don’t have regulations out from the latest Farm Bill,” Doggett said.

But during debate over the Farm Bill, Obama also showed an interest in reform. He voted for an amendment by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) that would have imposed a $250,000 limit on total subsidies a farmer could receive.

Pro-reform groups are pleased with the proposals.

“It’s great to have a president who wants to move forward on this. It’s about time that someone take a look at these payments and see if they are necessary,” said Sandra Schubert, director of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

She said it will be tough but possible for Obama to defeat the farm lobby.

“It will be a challenge. These are large, well-funded, entrenched interests, but this is doable,” Schubert said.

Obama can also expect EWG’s support in one of his proposals to add to the budget: an extra $10 billion for child nutrition programs. That also won praise from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who fought to include in the Farm Bill a $1 billion program that would provide fresh fruits and vegetables for school lunches.

“Many people call it the food bill. We should make sure that kids have good food on the table to eat, and the nutrition program will help with that,” Schubert said.