There's nothing quite like wading through a mountain of Senate amendments looking for that proverbial needle in a legislative haystack that may cause a major change to an industry. The 2012 Farm Bill process in the Senate is moving forward, but the many amendments submitted for consideration tend to clog up the process. However, on closer read there are some surprised tucked into that big pile of ideas.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has kicked up a storm with his amendment that would be a "prohibition on mandatory or compulsory check off programs." The amendment says "no program to promote and provide research and information for a particular agricultural commodity without reference to specific producers or brands (commonly known as a "check-off program") shall be mandatory or compulsory."
In a letter sent to Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Ranking Member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the American Soybean Association joined a number of groups expressing opposition to the amendment. In its release, ASA notes that the soybean checkoff was established by Congress and overseen by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. The program offers generic marketing and research designed to increase domestic and international demand for U.S. soy and supported entirely by U.S. soybean farmers through an assessment on all soybeans sold.
Steve Wellman, ASA president and a Syracuse, Neb., farmer, comments on the amendment in a statement from ASA: "The checkoff is not a tax. It is not something that is imposed upon us as farmers. Rather, it allows farmers to invest our own dollars to conduct research, build markets and create new uses for soy. Our checkoff program has produced a strong return of $640 in increased profit for ever dollar invested."
In the letter, groups opposing the checkoff amendment say they have funded more than $905 million in research, promotion and consumer education programs annually through checkoff activities at no cost to the government. "In these austere budgetary times, our producers should be commended and certainly deserve the support of Congress. Our members see the checkoff programs as an investment in their families' future."
In the case of ASA, the organization notes that program is managed by USDA and even the oversight is funded by soybean farmers.
While the DeMint amendment is one of many, it has shown up on the radar of checkoff-funded groups.
Chickens, eggs…and more
While there's a bill under consideration that could make rules regarding hen housing law, the same move is now an amendment to the farm bill. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., along with 12 cosponsors, are pushing standards to egg laying hen housing originally worked out with the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers.
The amendment essentially picks up the original bill and rolls it into the farm bill requiring a range of specific requirements for chicken housing. It's a measure getting opposition from other livestock groups that see it as a "first salvo" in getting the government into controlling minute details of farm management.
The chicken housing amendment is specific requiring precise amounts of space per hen within 15 years of enactment of the legislation. For example, the measure call says that beginning Jan. 1, 2015 through Dec. 31, 2020 a minimum of 134 square inches of individual floor space per brown hen and 116 square inches of individual floor space per white hen - that expands to 144 square inches for browns and 124 for whites after Jan. 1, 2021.
There are a number of prescribed requirements in the amendment from air quality to "quality of life" measures required.
In a statement opposing the Feinstein move, Tom Talbot, chairman of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association Cattle Health and Well-Being Committee, says that despite challenges cattlemen and women "face raising healthy cattle is always been a top priority." Talbot, who is a veterinarian and California rancher, is "appalled that animal care could be taken out of the hands of experts and placed in the control of the federal government," according to a press statement.
Talbot notes that the amendment would codify an agreement entered into by HSUS and UEP to seek federal legislation to mandate egg production practices. Talbot says the agreement creates a slippery slope to allow the federal government to mandate on-farm production practices for all sectors of the ag industry. "This legislation opens up Pandora's Box on Capitol Hill. While this bill currently only applies to the egg industry, it's not a far stretch to see it applied to all animal agriculture," he says.
There's a growing move afoot to label foods noting their biotech content. California has a measure on the November ballot that would do just that. And one of those farm bill amendments from Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and cosponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., would propose the same in the 2012 Farm Bill. They call it the "Consumers right to Know About Genetically Engineered Food Act" and the amendment is pretty detailed in what would have to be labeled. In his statement on the measure on the Senate Floor Thursday, Sanders says that no human testing has been conducted on biotech products and that the American public has been made into test subjects.
One provision of the amendment, if included in the farm bill, would require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Secretary of Agriculture to provide a report detailing the percentage of food and beverages sold in the United States that contain genetically engineered or genetically modified ingredients. Sanders says that 49 countries already require labeling and that this amendment would "allow states and consumers to know what they are eating. If this is not a conservative amendment I don't know what is," he says.
An amendment from Sen. Kay Hagen, D-N.C., would provide for inclusion of a House measure to prohibit the U.S. environmental Protection Agency or a state agency from requiring a permit under the Clean Water Act for a discharge ofa pesticide authorized for sale, distribution or use under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act from a point source into navigable waters.
The Agricultural Retailers Association urged support of the amendment noting the provision "is a great stride toward regulatory relief." ARA is urging its members to contact their Senators to support the measure. There has been talk that EPA would require individual permits be issued whenever a crop protection product would be used with a specific distance of water - the challenge is the time and administration of such a program.
The group also supports an amendment from Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., that refers to EPA and Army Corps. of Engineers guidance and enforcement of the "Identification of Waters Protected by the Clean Water Act." The amendment states that neither the Army Corps or EPA can finalize proposed guidance during the commend period for this document nor have the ability to use the guidance as a refrence for decision-making regarding the scope of CWA enforcement. There is concern that removal of the word "navigable" from some definitions would allow the Army Corps or EPA to define and regulate any body of water - including standing water in a field after a rain.
Supporting biofuels and bio-derived products
The Senate version of the farm bill includes provisions that support bio-based products and more biofuel use. During the Thursday Senate session, Stabenow talked about the importance of including biobased products in manufacturing and how that can boost jobs. She pointed to automakers in her own state, including Ford and Chevrolet, that are turning to bio-derived materials in new cars.
The push for biobased products is part of the energy title including the biomass crop assistance program - or BCAP - that could add up to as many as 2,600 new jobs. The new farm bill enhances initial measures on the collection, harvest, storage and transport of cellulosic materials as well, Stabenow says.
Protecting export promotion
An amendment from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., would reduce funding to the Market Assistance Program by $40 million and prohibit use of the program for certain activities. In a letter to Stabenow and Roberts from 80 members of the Coalition to Promote U.S. Agricultural Exports, the group says reducing funding for MAP would "seriously undermine U.S. agriculture's ability to compete in the highly competitive international marketplace."
The letter also notes that under MAP, participants must carefully evaluate and adjust all export market development activities every year. The participants submit plans to USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, which reviews every promotional activity to determine their eligibility and likelihood of success in increasing demand for U.S. ag exports.
The National Council for Farmer Cooperatives issued a statement on the proposed funding cut noting that the program helps open new doors for farmer-owned co-ops, producer groups and small businssess in overseas markets. In the statement, Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the organization, comments: "A recent study found that for every dollar spent on this program, 35 dollars in agricultural exports are generated. Not only does this money flow back directly to farmers and ranchers, but it also boosts the wider economy, creating jobs in manufacturing, transportation and other sectors. Far from a program that needs to be targeted for cuts, MAP is a wise investment in the future global competitiveness of American Agriculture."
In support of crop insurance
And the Independent Community Bankers of America has weighed in with its support of continuing crop insurance as outlined in the Senate farm bill version. The group notes that crop insurance is the cornerstone of most farmers' risk management portfolios.
In a letter to the Senate, the group says "after a challenging 2011 crop yeaer, and with increasing demands for food, fiber, feed and fuel worldwide, it makes little sense to reverse the great progress Congress has made in providing crop insurance protection to producers."
There are a number of critics of crop insurance as it is proposed in this latest farm bill version. Many claim the subsidies for insurance including premiums and deductibles go too far. During his statement on the farm bill Thursday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says the program is too expensive and gives too much to farmers. "I'm hard pressed to find any industry that operates at less risk" with taxpayer support, McCain says.
ICBA notes that efforts to weaken crop insurance will ultimately "hurt small producers because higher rates will drive producers from the program, which will lead to fewer premium dollars paid in to support it." The association notes that Congres was able to avoid a costly ad hoc disaster program last year despite a severe drought in Texas and surrounding states due to the effectiveness of crop insurance programs.
Notes Mark Scanlan, ICBA's senior vice president of agriculture and rural policy: "But reducing participation and causing rates to increase on remaining program participants is a path backward toward periodic, multi-billion dollar ad hoc disaster programs."
The pile of amendments to work through has also caused some controversy in the way that Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is working the process. A number of measures have been tabled, in part because a lot of the amendments are not germane to agriculture, but instead make some other case.
The farm bill debate is expected to continue for a few weeks. The House is expected to mark up its version of the bill as early as next week.