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Federal Farm Bill -- A Good Deal for NJ, Despite Cuts to Food Stamps?

farm stand

The $956 billion federal farm bill that now heads to President Obama’s desk for final approval has won praise from state farm groups who say the compromise legislation is beneficial for New Jersey agriculture and the best option for the state’s low-income families, though some New Jersey anti-hunger advocates are criticizing its 10-year, $8.6 billion cut in food stamps.

The bill, which passed the House of Representatives 251-166 on Wednesday and the Senate 68-32 on Tuesday, is likely to be signed by the president shortly after he gets it, according to press reports. Nine of New Jersey’s 12 members of the House -- five Democrats and four Republicans -- voted against the bill, as did newly elected Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat. Sen. Robert Menendez, also a Democrat, voted for the bill.

The 2014 farm bill would cut $23 billion in spending over 10 years by changing food-stamp eligibility, ending direct payments to farmers, and consolidating farm conservation programs.

The bill also expands subsidized risk-management and insurance programs, which are similar to the federal flood insurance plan. Farmers buy into the insurance program and receive payments when they experience losses from weather-related and other disasters.

The crop insurance program will be expanded to include what are called “specialty crops,” or fruits, vegetables and horticultural activities, which will aid a significant number of New Jersey farmers, according to the state Farm Bureau. While the bulk of New Jersey farm acres are in wheat, corn, and other grains, almost two-thirds of the nearly $1 billion in farm revenue generated in the state comes from specialty crops.

In addition, the bill continues water conservation programs supported by many environmental groups, programs that fund agricultural research at Rutgers University, and other smaller grant programs that benefit smaller New Jersey farmers.

No More Heat and Eat

Changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often called food stamps, would include the closing of what some call the “heat-and-eat” loophole. Under current federal law, about 15 states -- including New Jersey -- have been providing nominal (generally $1 to $5 a month) utility aid benefits under the federal Low-Income House Energy Assistance Program to households that pay their utility costs through their rents. This has allowed for larger shelter and utility deductions under SNAP guidelines, according to supporters of the federal farm bill, resulting in larger SNAP payouts to those families. This practice would be eliminated, resulting in an average of about $90 in SNAP benefit cuts per month for an estimated 850,000 families nationally, according to nutrition program advocates. State-level figures were not available.

The SNAP changes also establish a 10-year pilot that would enable states to create new work programs tied to SNAP benefits, a ban on SNAP recruitment advertising by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and tighter restrictions designed to ensure that only those eligible receive aid.

Peter Furey, executive director, of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s estimated 10,000-plus farmers, said the group is “bullish on the bill.”

“This new farm bill either tweaks or makes more efficient the overall farm bill,” he said. “It does not cripple anything in New Jersey, and we are happy to see it pass.”

Advocates in both parties say the bill, which authorizes farm and nutrition programs for the next five years while establishing a 10-year spending plan, will provide certainty for farmers and those in need of food aid.

The previous farm bill, which passed in 2008 over President George W. Bush’s veto, expired in June 2012. The House had initially proposed cuts of more than $20 billion to the food stamp program and more extensive cuts to agricultural programs, while the Senate had put $4 billion in food stamp cuts on the table. The House bill failed last summer and a faction of conservative Republicans, including New Jersey Congressman Scott Garrett (R-5), proposed $40 billion in food stamp cuts. A stopgap bill that would have funded agricultural programs and left the food stamp debate to a later date also failed in the House and it was unclear whether compromise legislation would be passed.

A conference committee of both houses hammered out the compromise that won Senate support on Tuesday and Congressional support on Wednesday .

U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, a Republican who represents parts of Burlington and Ocean counties, was one of three New Jersey supporters in the House. He called its passage “long overdue.”

"The Enemy of the Good"

“For once Washington didn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good,” he said. The legislation, he added, “supports the farmers who grow our food, while providing commonsense reforms and protections to nutritional assistance programs like SNAP. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But farmers, ranchers, consumers and low-income families have been waiting three years for perfect."

Booker, in a statement on Tuesday, also praised the bipartisan effort and said that the bill “accomplishes some important goals, including new conservation investments that will protect farmlands from development and new incentives to encourage the growth of farmers markets and promote locally grown foods, as well as animal welfare measures.”

But the cuts to SNAP made it impossible for him to support the bill, he said.

“During a time when many families continue to struggle and there are still three job seekers for every job available, the more than $8 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which disproportionately impacts New Jersey, is simply unacceptable,” he said.

But even some of those on the left, such as the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, a national liberal think tank, called the bill a solid compromise, especially in light of the more “draconian proposals” that had been on the table. Robert Greenstein, CPBB president, said in a statement on the organization’s website that the utility loophole is “difficult to defend” and that the proposed agreement will protect “tens of millions of low-income Americans who receive SNAP” from “the continuing threat that, in an adverse political environment, Congress could pass a farm bill that throws substantial numbers of them off the program and places barriers to SNAP in the way of many others.”

Ray Castro. senior policy analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank, said the bill was a net gain for the state, even though the change in LIHEAP eligibility is likely to hit New Jersey harder than many of the other states, because its economy has lagged the others. There were 892,606 people enrolled in SNAP in New Jersey in October, according to federal statistics, up 4.1 percent from October 2012 up 1.8 percent over the previous month. Nationally, there were 47.4 million food stamp participants in October, down 0.3 percent from the previous year and 0.2 percent from the previous month.

New Jersey is an expensive state, Castro said, and the numbers show how widespread SNAP’s use has been. Despite this -- and possibly because of it -- Castro said he agreed with CBPP that failing to pass the compromise bill could leave food stamp recipients in greater potential peril.

“Most of the program has been maintained and the draconian work requirements (included in the earlier House bills) were never accepted,” he said.

The LIHEAP provision, he said, was an obvious target because it was “hard to rationalize.” The program allowed New Jersey to estimate utility costs for low-income residents whose utilities were included in their rent, streamlining the application process and also increasing SNAP payments to some residents.

Not a Loophole

Adele H. LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, however, said the utility provision was not a loophole or “backdoor” into the program. People still need to be eligible for benefits to qualify for SNAP, she said, and any talk of a loophole “is a smokescreen.”

“Given the fact that food pantries already are running out of food and have never seen more desperate straits, this is not the time to be cutting what is supposed to be our nation’s first line of defense against hunger,” she said.

The proposed cuts are especially damaging, said Jim Weill, president of the national Food Research and Action Center, because of the expiration of supplementary benefits created as part of the federal stimulus bill.

“Demand at emergency food providers around the country has skyrocketed,” he said. “Now the farm bill, if passed, will considerably worsen the already bad situation for nearly a million households.”

Furey said he is sensitive to the concerns about the nutrition programs and, “as far as we in the agricultural community are concerned, we would have been happy to see level funding” for food programs. However, the bill needs to be considered as a whole, which means passing it so that programs that help the state’s farmers can remain in place.

Paul Hlubik, state executive director for the USDA Farm Service Agency, called the farm bill “pretty important here -- a net gain, a solid net gain for New Jersey.”

Overall, federal farm programs have doled out annually to state farmers about $4 million in commodities funding, which provides price supports for grains and other traditional farm crops through both direct payments and loans, $1 million for conservation programs designed to limit water use, and $2.5 million for disaster assistance, along with $10.5 million in loans for general operations and emergencies.

Direct commodity subsidies were targeted by supporters of the bill, because they are considered inefficient and paid farmers regardless of their circumstances. While some New Jersey farmers did receive subsidies, the bulk did not because they were not farming grain or field crops. Don't we say in front that most NJ farmers are growing grains? The shift to an insurance-based model, Furey said, would focus resources and benefit New Jersey’s specialty-crop farmers, who had not been eligible for most direct subsidy payments.. In addition, he said, farmers in the state will have a greater ability to qualify for marketing assistance and other loans. Overall amount of federal assistance will not change dramatically, he said.

“The bill provides a lot more certainty to farmers for the upcoming crop season,” he said.

The expansion of the crop insurance program -- which will cover more farmers and will cover a larger portion of their yields -- is especially important for the so-called specialty market, which is particularly vulnerable to weather events like hail storms and droughts. The shorter seasons in New Jersey further complicate matters, he said.

“When you are in an area like this, it is difficult for farmers,” he said. “We see everything from freezes and hailstorms to tornadoes and hurricanes. We don’t see devastating catastrophes as often, but we see some of everything.”

That means, he said, that New Jersey farmers are facing almost constant threats and potential losses. Crops like blueberries or tree fruit have a narrow window when they are marketable, he said, so “you can imagine the season-long devastation you get from a 10-minute long hailstorm,” which damage plants and generally leave them unproductive for the rest of the season.

So, making sure insurance is available and covers a greater portion of a potential crop is important -- as is the money for research and marketing programs.

“The farm bill is much more than programs for farmers,” Hlubik said. “There is so much in it that impacts all New Jerseyans in a positive way,” including money for research, marketing, and conservation.

Furey agrees.

“Getting the farm bill done -- almost two years beyond its due date -- is a big thing and a good thing for New Jersey,” he said.

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