Perseverance pays off in Farm Bill
By Kurt Schrader
For the Capital Press
Oregon’s rural communities have struggled for decades, and even though, internationally, agriculture has done well over the last several years with increased trade opportunities and a growing middle class around the world, Oregon’s farms and forests have faced unique challenges in this more competitive global market.
The 2014 Farm Bill that passed he House with overwhelming bipartisan support last week addresses many of these challenges, opening up new opportunities for jobs and prosperity where little hope existed before. The Pacific Northwest had two members on the House Committee on Agriculture, both of whom were appointed as members of the conference committee for final negotiations. In my position as the Ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Horticulture and Trade, I was in a critical position to promote Oregon and Washington’s diverse agricultural and forestry interests during the negotiations. Thanks to the conversations I had with many of you over the past few years, my team and I were well-prepared to make our case, and it paid off big time — for our farmers, our foresters and vulnerable Oregonians.
My subcommittee’s jurisdiction over specialty crops was the only area to receive increased funding over the Farm Bill’s five-year authorization period. In fact, during the final negotiations, we were able to get more funding for specialty crop block grants and research initiatives than either of the original House or Senate bills. These grants and research initiatives will pave the way for Northwest growers to be more innovative, competitive and have an edge on value-added product development that the global marketplace now demands.
Organic agriculture also falls under the jurisdiction of my subcommittee, and we were able to secure increased funding for organic research and extension initiatives, assistance for new growers who want organic certification, and funding for better market data and technology to help these farmers be more competitive. We also won the support of our colleagues in establishing an organic check-off program for research and promotion.
The Christmas tree growers also saw the value that a check-off program would have for their industry, which competes against imported artificial Christmas trees. Their effort to establish this much needed research and promotion program faced significant pushback from right wing groups, and a permanent delay from the administration, even though it’s industry funded and results in no cost to the taxpayer. With the industry’s help and bipartisan teamwork, we were successful in removing the final barrier for approval, and secured them a check-off program as well.
We also worked hard to make sure this is the best Farm Bill ever for our forestry community. Together with my Republican colleagues from Washington and Pennsylvania, we were able to include language in the bill declaring that logging roads are non-point sources, which the EPA agrees with. We even won the inclusion of forest products into the USDA’s bio-based programs. And Commissioner Labhart of Tillamook County’s suggestion that we scale forest projects rather than utilize the more costly process of marking individual trees was included in the bill as well.
The most contentious battles over dairy programs and SNAP funding were finally resolved, with major concessions on all sides of the negotiating table. This was no small feat in this highly partisan atmosphere. We were able to move dairy programs away from the unstable price support system to a margin insurance program that more accurately reflects market forces.
And we threw out the original House proposal to irresponsibly cut $40 billion from SNAP, which would have created unrealistic work requirements in areas of high unemployment and eliminated nearly 4 million people from the program. But given our country’s fiscal constraints, and the fact that SNAP constitutes over three-quarters of the total cost of the Farm Bill, we had some tough decisions to make. In the end, we settled on $8.5 billion in potential reductions by improving a federal heating assistance program that was being used by the states to give folks increased SNAP benefits without any verification. No one will lose their base benefit, and if the states put at least $20 annually toward an eligible individual’s heating bill, or a copy of one’s heating bill is presented to the state, they can keep their increased benefit.
All in all, the 2014 Farm Bill is a huge win for Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. The bill’s acknowledgment of the importance of specialty crops is unprecedented. We ended direct payments, and provided an update to many of our nation’s agriculture policies that will save our country over $23 billion.
Farm Bills are always highly contentious, but the agriculture committees here in Congress showed that with perseverance and the spirit of bipartisanship, our system of government really can work, and represent the great diversity of interests across America. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the State of Oregon and all of the Pacific Northwest in this arduous but rewarding process.
Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., is a member of the House Agriculture Committee.