Sunday, April 20, 2014
WASHINGTON -- Farmers from Maine and other New England states were making the rounds on Capitol Hill last week as part of a last-minute campaign to pressure Congress to complete work on a new five-year Farm Bill before the current one expires at the end of the month.
With much of Congress focused on the upcoming election, however, the chances appear grim that lawmakers will enact a new Farm Bill before heading home again to campaign.
Competing versions of a farm bill -- which encompasses everything from crop subsidies to disaster relief and food stamps -- have passed the full Senate and the House Agriculture Committee. But House Republican leaders have yet to allow a floor vote, apparently because of divisions within their own ranks (even though the bill is widely believed to have enough votes to pass, albeit with Democratic help).
Doug and Olin Hartkopf, a father-son team who run an organic dairy farm in Albion, along with Andrew Files, of the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society, were among the hundreds of farmers from across the nation roaming the hallways of the House and Senate office buildings last week urging action on the Farm Bill.
"We either see that it goes or it doesn't, but we know there is a lot happening behind the scenes," Files said during a meeting with Maine's U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Files and the Hartkopfs were worried that even if Congress passes a short-term extension of the current farm bill, it won't include funding for programs valuable to New England's growing network of small farms.
Those include programs intended to help farmers market their goods regionally to take advantage of the "local foods" movement and to help farmers meet organic certification requirements. Additionally, both the House and Senate bills contain provisions intended to encourage food stamp recipients to shop at local farmers' markets.
Pingree told the group that she was "quite confident that your priorities are our priorities," but she said the House Republican leadership appears unwilling to bring the issue up for a vote.
Meanwhile, more than 30 small farmers in Maine have signed a petition circulated by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group calling on Congress to end federal crop subsidies for large agricultural operations, or "agribusinesses."
Standing amid a crowd of several hundred at a rally organized by the National Farmers Union outside of the Capitol, Files said the current bill proposals "contain more benefits going to New England farmers than any other farm bill we have had in the past."
With chants of "pass the farm bill now," the crowd called on Congress to finish work before Sept. 30. U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat who is ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, told the crowd that the bill won't get done before then or before Election Day, Nov. 6. But he said the House could pass its bill, thereby allowing House and Senate negotiators to begin working out a compromise.
"We're not doing anything else to speak of, so we've got the time," Peterson said.
Kevin Miller -- 317-6256