As the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill approaches, lawmakers involved are beginning to look at ways to maintain or enhance some of the programs that help farmers.
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the first New Yorker to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in nearly 40 years, met with 50-plus farmers inside the Grape Discovery Center in Westfield to discuss plans for the 2012 Farm Bill. The stop was part of Gillibrand's statewide listening session to discuss the new efforts to help New York farmers and farming communities.
"We've been doing these listening sessions all across the state with different types of agricultural interests some dairy farms, specialty crops producers, some organic we really try to cover the array of agricultural products that we produce in this state," Gillibrand said. "The purpose is really to prepare us to write the Farm Bill.
In her opening statements, Gillibrand touched on some of the issues and concerns that she will be looking to address in the 2012 Farm Bill. She highlighted five issues: addressing the dairy crisis, providing access to capital, expanding new markets, specialty crops and investing in renewable energy.
"If you go to the USDA website and click on how we price milk it says feed and fuel cost is reflected, but it never is, it's a lie. That is part of the problem. There is no transparency or honesty in the pricing mechanism at all," she said. "I want to push the envelope that there is a disconnect between the price of milk and how we come up with it through the cheese price in Chicago. I think there is a lot of corruption and anti-trust behavior that is there to keep prices down. I think we'll push back on that."
To address the situation, Gillibrand has asked Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to begin collecting data to figure out other alternatives to the current pricing systems.
OBSERVER Photos by Michael Rukavina
Top: Dozens of interested farmers and growers attended U.S. Sen. Gillibrand’s stop in Westfield as part of her statewide tour discussing the 2012 Farm Bill.
The second issue she touched on was providing access to capital, stating there are shortfalls from the farm service agency loan programs not being able to give capital to farmers and that a lot of community banks aren't lending as often as they had in the past or at rates that are too high.
"We also want to help farms make more money doing the things they do and perhaps adding a secondary revenue stream," she said. "I focused a lot on value-added opportunities, funding for value-added production, so for example some of our dairies have become yogurt producers and ice cream producers. We want to make sure our grape growers can afford to produce fruit snacks for children, juice, and other products that are beneficial from the crops. If you're an apple grower and you want to slice apples for the local school district you could apply for a grant or loan to get that type of enhancement."
Grower's Cooperative Grape Juice Company General Manager Dave Momberger noted how grape juice concentrate shipped to a country like Korea where there is no free-trade agreement is competing with a country like Chile and his product would have a 45 percent tariff.
Gillibrand said the president is working on free-trade agreements with a handful of countries at the moment and South Korea is one of them. Back at home, Gillibrand said she is hoping to expand on some of the programs in the 2012 Farm Bill that help expand new markets for growers.
"We want to make sure we protect that investment and try and enhance it. We also want to bolster the investment in conservation oriented programs as opposed to the direct payments for large commodity crops," she said. "We'll move away from that traditional financing method into investing much more in programs like Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) which we use often in New York state, and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection (FRPP) and the Specialty Crop Block grant program. We use those well and often so we want to make sure those stay in place."
Over 150 New York small and mid-sized businesses benefited from the Market Access Program, which helped producers sell their products globally from 2004 to 2008. Gillibrand said she wants to make sure the Farm Bill retains the specialty crop program. The last bill was the first time money for specialty crops was given in the amount of $1 billion.
Charlene Ryder of the National Grape Cooperative asked, with the formation of the super committee, do you anticipate that funds for the Market Access Program could be eliminated or reduced before the next Farm Bill is even crafted?
"The super committee is supposed to come up with a plan to do a more holistic approach to long-term debt reduction," Gillibrand said. "The goal would be to look at all areas of spending and investment. If they do that then I think it would be a far more balanced approach than if we go to the straight cuts, which is the trigger if they fail. One of the reasons why I was very concerned about this deal is that if they do fail, the straight cuts approach will devastate so many programs New York cares deeply about. Half the cuts are going to come out of defense which means a lot of our upstate manufacturers that work with the Department of Defense and produce the equipment and machinery that our troops need will have reduced funding which would be negative for jobs. One of the earlier drafts we saw earlier was they were suggesting $11 million out of agriculture."
A Niagara County farmer noted how farm credit is all that is really left to help farmers, and that the banking industry across the state takes little interest in investing locally.
"We're left continuously looking for handouts ... whether the farm bill, entitlements ... it's a constant battle looking for funding for Cornell Cooperative Extension, countywide, 4-H programs and so-on," he said. "If Congress doesn't want to help us then don't stand in our way either doing business."
Gillibrand said she would be happy to advocate for the banking system to be more aggressive in helping agriculture in the state and noted because of the large banking presence in New York that they should be helping locally-grown industries.
Chautauqua County Executive Greg Edwards made three recommendations to Gillibrand that deal with supporting and enforcing the prior Farm Bill. Items he discussed were a daily inventory check for processors rather than a weekly to keep them from playing with pricing; classes of fluid milk he felt should be taken from four classes down to two; and lastly dealing with the assessment per hundredweight for promotion of milk products and the issue of dollars being withdrawn without going right back into the industry.
Gillibrand and her Legislative Correspondent Jenna Smith stated that a few of those issues have already been addressed but commented on one of his last statements which dealt with agricultural workforce.
"The farmers or the employer become the criminal because there is no way for them to know when a person shows up for a job that they are appropriate to hire," Edwards said of the issue.
A farmer who works on Lake Ontario agreed and joked how Border Patrol sits on his farm every day 'waiting for that invasion from Canada.'
Gillibrand said she is working with Sen. Charles Schumer on immigration and a draft of comprehensive immigration and agricultural jobs is a piece of it.
"If we can't get a comprehensive done then I think there is four pieces of regulation we can get done. I think we can do ag. Jobs, I think we can do visas for the highly educated individuals, and I think we can do the Dream Act. If we do those three pieces of immigration reform it will overwhelmingly help the U.S. Economy."
Gillibrand also said she wants a 30 percent tax credit for industries that are producing renewable energy sources and grants for start-up companies, and she hopes to make them permanent.
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