Newly Passed Farm Bill a Winner, Says Senator Stabenow
Michigan State University hosted President Obama on February 7 as he signed the most significant reform of American agriculture policy in decades. Standing by his side was the bill’s author, Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan.
As chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Stabenow showed great tenacity in authoring and successfully passing a landmark legislation that impacts the nation’s food supply, assistance programs and crop security.
Just one week after President Obama signed the bill, I sat down with Senator Stabenow to ask her about the parts of the bill of most interest to our readers. —Chris Hardman, Executive Editor edibleWOW
How will this new bill help or encourage farmers who are just starting out?
SENATOR STABENOW | We have a great new beginning farmer portion of the bill. Not only does it include loans, grants and training programs, but also a beginning farmer will be able to get a 10% reduction in crop insurance costs. The other change is that we have included veterans as part of our beginning farmers definition. We cut bureaucracy in this bill in over 100 different programs. There is only one new office we added, which is an office of support for veterans. The reason for that is the majority of our reserves come from small towns like where I grew up in Clare. They may already have family in agriculture or they may just be interested in going into farming, so we have included veterans in our definition of beginning farmers. Now they can receive help to get started farming.
What is the true impact on the food stamp program and its budget cuts?
SENATOR STABENOW | It’s so misunderstood. First of all, we have rejected every harmful thing the House of Representatives suggested. They restructured eligibility. They required drug testing, and they required work in order to get food, even if you are a mom with babies. They cut $40 billion. None of those are in the farm bill. So the eligibility remains the same. Anyone that is getting any help through the regular program today will get help tomorrow through the same way.
The other point that is absolutely critical is that by authorizing the farm bill for five years, we have authorized the food assistance program for five years; it cannot be cut. Without that five-year authorization [it would be] up to the appropriations process every year, which means that we can do nothing on funding unless the folks that oppose food assistance agree. This way we have kept in place the current program eligibility for five years, and it cannot be changed.
What we did do—and this is important for those of us who believe strongly that a great American value is to have food assistance there when people need it—is fix problems so they can’t be used to gut the program. For instance, in Michigan there had been two different people who had won the lottery and had been on food assistance. The systems didn’t catch them, and so they continued receiving assistance. The people who oppose food assistance used that to try and gut the entire program. My position was: We’ll just fix that.
A few states found a way to give everyone on food assistance $1 in heating assistance. This gave them credit for a utility bill they may not have, so they could get more food. The more expenses you have, your food assistance money actually increases.
Although I think people should have more food assistance, this is a loophole, because people that don’t have a utility bill were getting credit. So what we did was say if you are getting $20 in heating assistance a year, nothing changes for you. If you get less than $20 a year, you have to produce a utility bill to get credit for having a utility bill. That way someone who does not have a utility bill is not going to get credit for a utility bill.
Think of all the ways food assistance was being attacked. We managed to stop every single one of them and protect the program for five years while increasing money for food banks and fresh fruits and vegetables.
What does the new bill offer to protect small family farms?
SENATOR STABENOW | We have wonderful new opportunities for small farms and organic farmers. The organic community received every single item on their agenda. For the first time, organic growers will have access to crop insurance as well as all fruit and vegetable growers. The other change is what we call “whole-farm policies” designed for a small farm that grows a number of different crops in a small quantities. In the past, if you had corn you had a crop insurance policy for corn. For each commodity you had crop insurance. But now, for a small farm the crop insurers have to develop a whole-farm policy. This will definitely help small farmers because it will be less expensive and will eliminate paperwork.
In the last farm bill we introduced a section for fruits and vegetables and organic growers. It was called the specialty crop title. The last farm bill invested about $1 billion in that area. This farm bill invests about $3 billion. In terms of growth, this is a real paradigm shift to support small farms, urban farms, organic growers and fruit and vegetable growers.
How will the bill impact local food systems?
SENATOR STABENOW | We’ve quadrupled the money for farmers’ markets in this bill. We have created more opportunities for food hubs and expanded support for regional food hubs. [Food hubs provide a one-stop shopping experience for consumers interested in a variety of products from small farmers or local food artisans]. Another change is that we are making sure that someone can use food assistance cards to be part of a community food co-op or buying club. We’re trying to create more opportunities for people to buy healthy food.
I feel like we’ve made a big step. We still support the big growers, but you can’t pass a farm bill unless you support everything. The difference with this bill is that we are now truly supporting everything. In the past that didn’t include small farms. What I did was come into this and say, “I’m not trying to pit anybody against each other, but all is all.”