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Thursday, May 16 2013 11:00 PM

At last, we have progress on a farm bill

By The Bakersfield Californian

We have good news and bad news regarding the prospects for a new federal farm bill this fall. The good news: Both the Senate and House versions are moving forward, setting the stage for the two houses to begin structuring a new, five-year plan. The bad news: Both the Senate and House versions are moving forward, setting the stage for the two houses to begin structuring a new, five-year plan.

The most recent law, passed in 2008, is still in effect under the terms of an extension that runs through Sept. 30. There appears to be some bipartisan consensus on key components of the bills, which encompass vast and diverse aspects of the nation's economy, not just its agricultural infrastructure.

The elimination of a direct payment program that sends money to farmers whether they grow crops that season or not would have a big impact here in Kern County. Direct payments would end under the House bill, replaced by what lawmakers say are improved "risk management" programs, a form of subsidized crop insurance. The new system is more efficient, affordable and better suited to the current agriculture business climate.

Money saved by that change, estimated to be in the billions of dollars, would be diverted to other subsidy programs, including the cotton industry. The Central Valley -- primarily Kern, Fresno and Kings counties -- has nearly 1,400 cotton farms and produces between 10 percent and 14 percent of the United States' annual yield, according to Calcot. The cotton crop is worth about $1 billion annually, directly and indirectly employs about 37,000 workers and contributes an estimated $3.5 billion annually to California's economy.

Members of the House and Senate are saying all the right things about the chances of a single workable bill. "I think we'll get it worked out, and I think we'll get it to the floor shortly," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.

The biggest impediment to reconciliation is differing approaches to nutritional assistance to the poor, or food stamps. The House bill calls for $20.5 billion in cuts to food assistance while the Senate version calls for $4.1 billion in cuts. Deep cuts would have a double-edged impact, given the depths of the Central Valley's endemic poverty.

The billion-dollar question: How might these cuts be carried out? Will food be taken off the tables of families truly in need? Lawmakers will say they're exclusively targeting waste and redundancy, all of which typically run rampant in massive federal programs such as this.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, acknowledged those concerns when he voted to advance the House version this week. "We still have more work to do to ensure the 2013 farm bill works for all Americans, including revisiting cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but we are moving this process forward," he said. "There is too much good in this bill to let it die before it is heard on the House floor. "

The divide over food stamps could be a deal breaker, given the rigid inflexibility the two parties have demonstrated in past sessions. Valley House Republicans would be wise to remember that nutritional aid to the poor doesn't just benefit the poor; it benefits valley growers who help feed the poor with those food stamps.

The 2013 farm bill is long overdue. Let's wrap it up and move on.

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