Fruit growers happy with 2014 federal Farm Bill


Years from now, in the opinion of Ryan Findlay of the Michigan Farm Bureau, people will remember the 2014 federal farm bill as the legislation that “changed farm policy.”

“The direct payment program is going away. It was eliminated with this farm bill,” said Findlay, who is the MFB’s liaison with Congress.

Since the 1996 farm legislation, U.S. growers of certain commodities such as corn, soybeans and wheat have received direct subsidies from the government just for growing them.

Findlay said elimination of the controversial “direct payments” will make the other government programs for farmers easier to defend.

Michigan fruit growers will remember it as the farm bill that provided them with expanded subsidized crop insurance and also with continued marketing and research programs to help them sell more of their fruit, both domestically and abroad.

Virtually no fruit grower in Michigan can individually afford to put “boots on the ground in countries like India, Brazil, Mexico and Israel” to help sell their crop there, said Mike Rothwell of BelleHarvest Sales in Belding, but the federal Market Access Program under the USDA will offer grants to farm organizations willing to put up matching funds.

BelleHarvest is in the apple business, including storage and marketing, and represents about 150 or more growers around the state, according to Rothwell.

All 850 or so Michigan apple growers are members of the Michigan Apple Committee, according to executive director Diane Smith, and what they probably like best is the “ability to insure their crop.”

Many fruit growers in Michigan lost most or virtually all of their crops due to unusual weather conditions in the early spring of 2012.

Smith said the government programs to enhance exports, marketing and research “are not handouts. We make sure we are matching those grant dollars at least dollar-for-dollar.”

The Michigan Apple Committee is a grower-funded nonprofit organization devoted to marketing, education and research to promote Michigan apples.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said the five-year Agricultural Act of 2014 expands crop insurance for the first time to many American farmers who raise “specialty crops,” which includes apples, cherries, blueberries and asparagus.

Findlay said the government subsidy for crop insurance in Michigan is, on average, about 62 percent of the premium. It can cover from 50 to 85 percent of the loss, with policies provided by many existing insurance carriers and the rates determined by federal guidelines, based on a variety of factors including how large the farm is and the options the farmer wants.

Stabenow said the new farm bill “reduces the deficit by $23 billion and represents the most significant reform of American agriculture policy in decades.” She said the elimination of the “unnecessary direct payment subsidies” to the commodities growers is a major reform because the direct payments are paid “every year whether or not there is a need.”

Stabenow said the legislation “ends programs that are no longer working and consolidates duplicative programs, eliminating 100 programs or authorizations in total.”

The farm bill also consolidates 23 existing conservation programs into 13, saving $6 billion, according to Stabenow, and was supported by more than 600 conservation organizations.

Because the farm bill revolves around food production, the legislation includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as “food stamps.”

On her website, Stabenow posted a document stating “the bipartisan Farm Bill stops fraud and misuse to achieve savings” in the SNAP program, “while maintaining critical assistance for families that need temporary support. The Farm Bill stops lottery winners from continuing to receive assistance (as was seen in high-profile cases in Michigan in recent years), cracks down on benefit trafficking, and closes a loophole being used by some states to artificially inflate benefits for a small number of recipients.”

“The Farm Bill also provides new pilot programs to help people secure employment through job training and other services, giving them the resources necessary to earn a sustainable income,” states the Stabenow website. The Congressional Budget Office “estimates this section of the bill will save $8 billion without reducing the amount of benefits anyone is intended to receive under the current rules of the program. The Farm Bill also doubles SNAP benefits for low-income families when they buy healthy produce at farmers' markets … increases funding for food banks, and provides financing for new grocery stores in under-served neighborhoods. The bill also reforms international food aid programs, allowing America to feed 500,000 more hungry people around the world with no additional cost.”

According to the Michigan Farm Bureau, only four of Michigan’s 14 members of the U.S. House did not vote for the 2014 farm bill. One was Justin Amash, a Republican from Grand Rapids, who says on his website that the farm bill with SNAP included has a total cost over its five years of almost $1 trillion.

“I oppose price support programs and other farm subsidies because they damage the economy, harm consumers, and hurt the environment by encouraging more agricultural production than may be necessary. They should be phased out,” wrote Amash. “Government subsidies in general are inherently unfair and empower particular interests over the public at large. This bill also does not do enough to reform SNAP, the costs of which have quadrupled over the last decade. I support helping those in need, and we must do so wisely.”

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