With the shadow of immigration reform looming over Capitol Hill, committees in the Senate and House approved versions of the farm bill May 14 and 15 with some leaders calling for the full Congress to quickly OK the legislation.
Robert Guenther, vice president for public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington D.C., said lawmakers want the overdue farm legislation off their plates so they can focus on immigration reform, which is anticipated to spur lengthy debate.
“I think there is better than an even chance they will get it to the floor (of the Senate) next week,” Guenther said after the May 14 vote by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
“It is almost identical to the 2012 (Senate) version of the bill. No surprises in terms of fresh produce programs. Overall we are supportive of the bill.”
Guenther said some Senators have said they want a their chamber to vote before the Memorial Day recess.
“The House anticipates going to the floor (with its version) in June,” Guenther said. “That sets a timeline up for it to go to a conference committee in late July or August with final approval possible in September.”
Current extensions to funding under the 2008 farm bill expire Sept. 30. If Congress hasn’t approved a new version by then, another extension would be necessary.
The Senate committee took about three hours to approve its $955 billion farm bill with a 15-5 vote. The House committee spent 13 hours on its $940 billion version, approving it 36-10. Both are very similar to bills put forward in 2012, Guenther said.
However, he said a provision in the House version is problematic for the fresh produce industry. It would expand the federal Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program for low-income schools to include frozen and processed produce.
There are a couple of concerns about the Senate’s version that Guenther said the industry is also watching closely. One relates to a section that would require growers who buy crop insurance to have a conservation plan for the land they are insuring.
Guenther said other commodities have had this requirement previously, but not produce. He said United Fresh and other industry groups have asked for a cost analysis, but none has been provided yet.
“Until we know more about this provision we can’t support it,” Guenther said. “We need to know what the financial impact might be and how many growers and acres this would impact.”
The other sticking point in the Senate’s farm bill, Guenther said, could open the door for growers of subsidized commodities such as corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton, to grow fruits and vegetables on their subsidized acres.
Guenther said the fresh produce industry has been successful since 1985 at preventing subsidized growers from planting specialty crops on land subsidized for other commodities.
“It’s a question of fairness,” Guenther said.
The biggest roadblocks to the farm bill’s ultimate passage are provisions in both the Senate and House versions related to food stamp cuts, reforms of commodity programs and conservation issues, said Guenther.
The Senate bill would cut $4 billion in food stamps while the House version seeks to cut $20.5 billion from the program during the next 10 years. Increases to subsidies for rice and peanut growers are another sticking point for some lawmakers.