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Farmers eye cotton program changes as farm bill moves to passage

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WASHINGTON – Arizona farmers are keeping an eye on a plan to change the old cotton support program from direct payment to an insurance program, just one provision in the 700-page farm bill expected to be approved this week.

Despite uncertainty about how the cotton program transition might affect Arizona growers, however, farm groups in the state said they were still pleased to see Congress finally moving toward passage of a bill after two years of debate.

The bill allocates nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years, largely for food stamp programs, but also includes funds for agricultural research and development, pest and disease prevention, and other programs in addition to the cotton change.

The House voted 251-166 to pass the bill Wednesday. A Senate vote on final passage is expected this week.

Arizona Farm Bureau President Kevin Rogers said he is “very pleased” with the bill’s progress. The previous law expired in the fall.

“Our members need the security to know what the rules of the game are going to be going forward,” Rogers said.

As a farmer who grows alfalfa, wheat and cotton in Maricopa County, Rogers said having a safety net for agriculture is important. But he said that cotton farmers in Arizona may not benefit from an insurance program the same way that those in Southern states, such as Georgia, might.

“Out West, we don’t have those major disasters” like floods that can wipe out crops, Rogers said. “As those details (about the insurance program) come out, we’ll know how it will affect us.”

While the Arizona Cotton Growers Association also supports the farm bill, Executive Director Rick Lavis said its effect on Arizona cotton growers remains to be seen, as cotton shifts from direct-payment subsidies to a commodity insurance program.

“It’s still hard to know exactly how it will play out,” Lavis said, while noting that the new cotton program may not be implemented until 2015.

Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of federal government affairs for the Western Growers Association, said the association “enthusiastically supports” the farm bill, which allocates federal funds toward programs that are important for fruit and vegetable growers in Arizona and elsewhere.

He said there are two critical areas of fruit and vegetable funding: pest and disease prevention, and research and development.

“For fruit and vegetable growers, we face a constant threat of pests and invasive species,” Nuxoll said. He added that federal resources will help make the industry more efficient and will let it continue to improve food safety and marketing.

He said other important parts of the bill include trade programs that promote U.S. products overseas, nutrition programs that can educate young people on healthy eating habits, and provisions that help growers comply with state and federal regulations. In Arizona, for example, it could allow growers to invest in better irrigation systems and air-quality control.

“Since the recession, state budgets all across the country have been limited,” Nuxoll said. “That makes it even more critical that these federal funds are available.”

Steven Reiley, vice president of Farm Credit Services Southwest, an agriculture financer based in Tempe, said last week that the expired farm bill had not had much of an effect in Arizona – yet.

“The loan season’s just begun,” Reiley said, adding that the lack of secured government payments could eventually affect some farmers’ ability to secure loans. “We can’t use those (payments) in any projections, so that might have some effect.

“It really hasn’t gotten to that point yet,” he said.