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Farmers cautiously optimistic on farm bill, despite funding cuts

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WASHINGTON – Arizona farmers are cautiously optimistic at the Senate’s passage this week of a five-year farm bill, even though it cuts $24 billion from current spending levels.

Arizona Farm Bureau President Kevin Rogers said that while there was “a lot of give and take” on the bill, the important thing is that passage would give farmers some guarantees going forward.

“If there’s a major drought or major disaster, they’ll (farmers) know that insurance products will be there to help them get through the tough times,” Rogers said Tuesday.

Low-income advocates were not as pleased, however, with the Senate’s 66-27 vote on Monday to pass the bill. It cuts $4 billion from food-stamp funding over the next 10 years, a key part of the legislation.

The 1,152-page bill would set spending at about $100 billion a year for the next 10 years, according to published reports. In addition to farm programs, the bill contains funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP, or food stamps – which make up the largest part of spending in the measure.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., was one of 27 votes against the bill. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was not present for the vote.

Angela Schultz, a spokeswoman for Arizona Community Action Association, said that Arizona hunger rankings are already high: One in five people and one in four children in the state struggle with hunger. Cuts to the SNAP program will not help those low-income families, she said.

She noted that SNAP participants, on average, receive benefits for just nine months, helping them get through times of crisis.

“It’s estimated that 500,000 households (in the U.S.) a year will lose $90 a month of SNAP benefits,” Schultz said of the Senate version of the bill.

The measure could face deeper cuts in the House, where its future is uncertain. After the Senate passed a farm bill last year, the House never voted on it. That led to a one-year extension of the previous farm bill, which expired in 2012.

“We’re looking for about 300 amendments to be dropped on the House bill” this year, said Mary Kay Thatcher, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau.

Rogers and Thatcher are wary of any further cuts the House may impose.

“Agriculture alone can’t cut the deficit,” Rogers said. But he said that making progress on a new, multiyear bill trumps any drawbacks in the Senate version.

Ana Kennedy, government relations manager for the Arizona Farm Bureau, said the bureau wants to guarantee that there’s a crop insurance program available for all farmers in the final legislation, and that no means-testing is enacted to cap farmers who make more money than others.

Rogers said crop-insurance subsidies have changed in the past 15 years: Where farmers once received direct payments to produce what the public and market wanted, they now grow crops based on what products have insurance.

“You have to grow a commodity that has an insurance there,” Rogers said.

He predicts that there will continue to be a move away from direct subsidies, and that it’s important for farmers to understand how such changes will affect their farms.

Despite differences between the chambers, Rogers is optimistic that a bill will pass the House and win final approval. After all, everyone needs agricultural products, he said.

“The ag community stepped up this year,” Rogers said.