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Farm Bill Failure Means Uncertainty For CT Producers


The failure last week of the super committee on debt reduction has implications in many different walks of life. Connecticut’s small farms are among those who have been left in limbo. That’s because a new, and significantly different version of the Farm Bill was to have been attached to the super committee’s proceedings. WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports.

Farm policy in the US has for decades revolved around huge agribusinesses

“Historically a lot of the funds had flowed to commodity growers, sugar, rice, cotton, and we don’t do that kind of agriculture here.”

But Connecticut’s Agriculture Commissioner, Steven Revicsky says in 2008, some of that began to change.

“In the last Farm Bill we had the specialty crop grant program included which for the first time allows federal dollars to flow to fruit and vegetables, greenhouse and nursery.”

There was also an enhanced focus on conservation programs that pay farmers to preserve land as open space, another important support to Northeast farmers. The result?

“The Farm Bill is critically important to the future of Connecticut farm families and agriculture in general.”

One of those Connecticut farm families is the Orrs, Peter and Kristin, of Fort Hill Farms in Thompson, in the state’s northwest corner. Their most high profile business is dairy, and they also grow fruits, vegetables and nursery plants. Peter Orr says the collapse of the super committee talks last week is a huge frustration.

“Well my hopes would be that Washington would have gotten their act together and learned how to agree upon things that are of core importance to this country.”

The chairs of the agriculture committees in the House and Senate, Republican Frank Lucas and Democrat Debbie Stabenow had agreed a package of measures that was to have been fast tracked through with the super committee’s deliberations as a replacement, slimmer Farm Bill.

“The super committee had given agriculture a mandate to come up with over $20 billion worth of cuts, and through much negotiations agriculture stepped up to the plate and offered a Farm Bill that did have the requested deficit reduction contained within the bill.”

Though the recommendations haven’t been made fully public, it seems as if they would have amounted to a mixed bag for Northeast farmers. Support for specialty crops was expanded, while cuts were made to subsidies to some big commodity crops. Various conservation programs would have been merged together, probably with cuts. Orr says he could have lived with most of the changes, including alterations to support for dairy farmers like himself.

“Agriculture did give, but unfortunately with regards to the failure of the overall super committee, from what my understanding is, we’re back to step zero to come up with a new bill.”

In fact, it’s not yet clear what will happen to Stabenow and Lucas’s recommendations, but the whole process may now revert to the committees for debate.

“Fortunately we do have good representation on the ag committee, in the sense that we have a congressman in Connecticut, and that is the first time that Connecticut has had someone on that committee in a hundred years.”

That congressman is the second district’s Joe Courtney. He’s one of four Northeast representatives now on the House committee, four more than there were in 2008, but he’s worried even that may not be enough to preserve the current balance of the recommendations.

“My concern is that we could go backwards rather than forwards, if there’s a new version that gets hammered out through the committee process, which is dominated by and large by non-New England, non-Northeast members of congress.”

Courtney says the importance of the Farm Bill goes even beyond small producers here, because of the US Department of Agriculture’s rural development grants that support things like public works projects in the state’s smallest towns.

“The bill that we saw being negotiated did a decent job of protecting access to those rural development low interest loans and grants that really are the life blood of making sure that small town Connecticut is going to have a fair shake.”

While Courtney says he disliked the secret nature of the deliberations of Stabenow and Lucas, the failure of their efforts could open the Farm Bill to cuts even bigger than the 23 billion dollars that they had proposed.

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.

Harriet Jones is Managing Editor for Connecticut Public Radio, overseeing the coverage of daily stories from our busy newsroom.

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