AP NEWS

Congress approves farm bill that rejects food stamp cuts, helps CT dairy farmers

December 13, 2018

WASHINGTON — Congress has approved a new farm bill allocating billions of dollars in subsidies to American farmers and providing new help to Connecticut’s vulnerable dairy industry while rejecting President Donald Trump’s plan to impose work requirements on food stamp recipients.

With the support of all five Connecticut lawmakers, the House approved a final $867 billion farm bill on a bipartisan 369-47 vote Wednesday afternoon. The Senate approved the legislation 87-to-13 Tuesday.

The bill now heads to the White House, where Trump is expected to sign it.

The current farm bill, which authorizes dozens of farm programs and key federal nutrition programs, expired on Sept. 30. The new farm bill is a compromise between legislation approved separately by the House and Senate earlier this year.

The biggest difference between the bills was the approach to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which is commonly known as food stamps.

Following a plan proposed by Trump, the House version of the farm bill — which was drafted by Republicans — would have forced states to impose new work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependents and on parents with children who are older than 6. But the Senate rejected the new restrictions, which anti-hunger advocates said would mean a cut to benefits for 1.1 million households, and the new work requirements were dropped.

“There’s a lot more we need to do, like cut wasteful subsidies to big agri-businesses, but we avoided the most dangerous Republican proposals in this final bill,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

The White House, however, could use its authority to cut the food stamp program without approval from Congress.

“We must remember that this battle is far from over,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. “U.S. Agriculture Secretary (Sonny) Perdue has not been shy about his intentions to push work requirements through the rule-making process. But this bill — its evolution due to the tireless work of so many around the country — makes Congress’s intent clear. Secretary Purdue should respect that.”

Connecticut’s dairy farmers, who have suffered from four years of depressed milk prices — exacerbated by Trump’s trade wars with China and other nations — lauded the farm bill’s changes to the federal dairy program.

The program offers dairy producers the ability to buy insurance-type coverage to protect against low margins — the difference between the price of milk and the cost of production.

The program was initiated in the 2014 farm bill, but some dairy farmers complained that it wasn’t much help since they paid premiums for years without getting much in the way of insurance payouts.

The program was revised last year, and again in the new farm bill.

“One of the most important pieces in this bill is the improvement it makes for our dairy farmers,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. “The economic downturn in farm country is hitting dairy hardest of all.”

The farm bill also creates a new milk incentive program within SNAP to improve participants’ diets by increasing milk consumption.

Benjamin Freund, co-owner of a dairy farm near East Canaan that raises about 300 Holsteins, said “the dairy provisions in the farm bill are tweaked in our favor.”

But to Freund, Congress’ ability to set farm policy for another five years may be more important.

“The whole agriculture community supports the farm bill because it gives us a road map,” Freund said. “Right now, we are driving in the dark with no lights.”

Dogfighting ban

Beside coming to the aid of farmers and ranchers who have suffered from deep declines in commodity prices because of Trump’s trade wars with China and other nations, the farm bill contains several provisions promoted by animal welfare advocates.

One will provide protections for pets of domestic violence and authorizes a grant program to allow domestic violence shelters to accommodate pets. Currently, only 3 percent of shelters in the nation have the ability to accept pets, which animal rights advocates say prevents some victims from fleeing an abuser.

Another provision in the farm bill prohibits the importation or exportation of dogs and cats for slaughter. The farm bill also incorporates legislation sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., that ensures that long-standing federal restrictions on dogfighting and cockfighting apply to U.S. territories, allowing a crackdown on those practices in American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The farm bill also incorporated Murphy’s “Century Farms Act,” which gives federal recognition to farms that have been in operation for 100 years or more.

The legislation also provides permanent funding for local farmers’ markets, provides better crop insurance options for shellfish farmers and the aquaculture industry and legalizes hemp, a form of cannabis with far lower THC levels than marijuana.

“One of the most exciting areas of opportunity in this measure is the expansion of industrial hemp production, which I have long seen as a tremendous opportunity to grow our agricultural sector in Connecticut,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn.

“As important, this bill maintains the status quo for nutrition assistance programs that faced deep cuts in the initial House version, prioritizes substance abuse recovery programs within the Rural Development title and expands land conservation programs,” he said. “Together, this is a good package for eastern Connecticut.”