As farm bill debate looms, Tarheel lawmakers gird for fight over tobacco

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 21, 2013 

  • More information North Carolina agriculture: Contributes $77 billion to state economy 18 percent of state income 17 percent of workforce 50,400 farms More than 80 types of commodities No. 1 in tobacco and sweet potatoes No. 2 in Christmas tree cash receipts (after Oregon) No. 2 in production of hogs (after Iowa) No. 2 in turkeys, (after Minnesota) Source: North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

— The U.S. Senate this week has started to fine-tune the huge, new five-year farm bill, working through votes on a series of amendments that will include a proposal to eliminate federal subsidies for tobacco insurance.

North Carolina is the nation’s No. 1 producer of tobacco, and the state’s senators, Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard Burr, said on Tuesday that they’d fight the amendment.

It was offered by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to eliminate the taxpayer-supported insurance. Supporters say the subsidies are needed to help keep small tobacco farmers in business.

Overall, Hagan and Burr said the farm bill worked out by the Senate Agriculture Committee contains important safety nets for the farmers who raise the state’s diverse array of some 80 types of commodities, from cotton and peanuts to hogs and poultry.

Agriculture generated an estimated $77 billion for North Carolina last year and employs 17 percent of the state’s workforce, according to state data.

The 1,000-plus-page bill also sets conservation and forestry policy, provides money for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, and supports rural development and services.

“Passing the farm bill is critical to ensuring our farmers have the certainty they need to operate their farms,” Hagan said in a press briefing on Tuesday.

Hagan said she pushed for several provisions that ended up being included in the bill: an economic adjustment assistance program for cotton growers, and payments to peanut farmers if prices fall below a set level.

Supporters of the proposal to end subsidized crop insurance for tobacco said their plan would save $333 million over the next 10 years. The American Cancer Society was among groups supporting it.

“Tobacco is legal and should be treated as any other legal crop,” Hagan said. “This would do nothing to reduce tobacco use. What it means is that we would import more tobacco from Brazil and other countries.”

Eliminating federal crop insurance would make it “next to impossible” for the state’s roughly 2,000 small tobacco farmers to get financing from banks, Hagan said.

She said the Senate bill reduces federal spending over the next decade by cutting subsidies that went to farmers even in good years, as well as reducing abuse and streamlining programs.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the Senate legislation would cost $955 billion over 10 years, and also save an estimated $18 billion over the same period compared to current law.

One major area of debate is expected to be cuts to food stamps. The Senate plan cuts the nutrition aid program for the poor by about $4 billion over a decade. The House version proposes $20.5 billion in cuts.

The two North Carolina congressmen on the House Agriculture Committee, Reps. Mike McIntyre, a Democrat, and Richard Hudson, a Republican, voted in favor of the cuts when the committee prepared its version of the legislation earlier this month. McIntyre, the No. 2-ranking Democrat on the committee, said the nutrition program is a lifeline for the poor, but that improvements were needed to make it more accountable and to close loopholes.

McIntyre said the Republican leadership of the House plans to bring the farm bill to a vote in June. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office, however, hasn’t announced its plans.

McIntyre said he got improvements included in the House bill that improve the safety net for peanut farmers when prices collapse.

He said he also would continue to push for more funds for rural water and wastewater infrastructure and for small loans, training and technical assistance for low- and moderate-income rural entrepreneurs. He proposed those additions in the House committee, but they didn’t get enough votes to pass.

Jay Boyette, commodity director for the North Carolina Farm Bureau, said it was difficult to single out concerns about individual crops because the state’s agriculture is so diverse.

“What we seek is a balanced farm bill that helps all farmers manage the risk they have to produce the nation’s food supply,” he said.

Consumers benefit as well, Boyette said, because the government’s help to farmers to manage risk helps control food prices.

“I would say that generally speaking, the farm bill has met the needs of North Carolina’s farmers reasonably well,” he added.

The Senate passed a farm bill last year, but the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives didn’t bring it up for a vote at that time. Congress passed a one-year extension, which will expire on Sept. 30.

Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof

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