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Ag leaders' opinions vary on federal nutrition programs








By JOHN O'CONNELL



Capital Press



Agricultural leaders have wide ranging opinions about how federal food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, should be reformed in a new farm bill.



But there seems to be a consensus within agriculture that lawmakers should have passed both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill and resolved any differences about nutrition assistance funding during conference committee.



Instead, the House rejected its farm bill June 20 by a 195-234 vote, unable to bridge differences about SNAP, commonly called food stamps, and other food assistance programs, which represent 80 percent of the bill's spending. The House proposed to cut food stamps by $2 billion annually, or about 3 percent, while the version passed by the Senate cut food stamps by a half percent, or $400 million.



Rick Hall, president of the Shasta Growers Association and manager of a downtown farmers' market in Redding, Calif., accepts electronic-benefit transfer payments for fresh produce at his Thursday night market.



He's concerned about proposals from some lawmakers to separate the farm programs into separate bills from food stamps and drastically cut food aid. But he's disappointed that lawmakers let disagreements about food stamps derail the farm bill.



"I'm sure they'll revise it and come out with another edition. But it doesn't seem to be all that popular with our congressional leadership, unfortunately," Hall said.



Idaho Farm Bureau Federation spokesman John Thompson believes farmers took their share of cuts, and food stamps should be expected to do the same. Thompson and his organization supported the Senate bill as a "good compromise," and intended to offer comments during conference to further influence food stamp funding.



Due to the House's failure, Thompson said eagerly awaited farm bill crop insurance programs won't come to fruition. His organization opposes extending the current bill by another year.



"It's a lot of political gamesmanship going on rather than statesmanship," Thompson said.



Travis Jones, executive director of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, believes it's time to separate food stamps from the farm bill.



"We really didn't have a dog in the (food stamp) fight, other than hoping a farm bill would pass," Jones said.



Jones said a compromise would have been reached in conference, with final food stamp cuts somewhere in the middle of the House and Senate proposals.



"Now we have so few lawmakers in Congress with any connection to agriculture, they don't even understand food stamps are worthless without food," Jones said.



Jones doubts a new bill will pass before the extension of the 2008 bill expires in Sept. 30. He predicts a likely outcome is an extension for a couple of months to buy more time.



The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has taken no official position on food stamp funding, though the issue could become a topic of its annual summer meeting, said Kristina Butts, executive director of legislative affairs.



"Even though it wasn't a perfect (farm) bill, it was at least a starting point of the conversation," Butts said.



Tim Hearden contributed to this report.



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