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New Farm Bill gives hope to dairy farmers

New Farm Bill gives hope to dairy farmers

Measure improves dairy price insurance and funds food stamps, school lunches
New Farm Bill gives hope to dairy farmers
Cows feed on hay at the King Farm in Schuylerville in 2017.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

CAPITAL REGION -- With more than 1,200 cows being milked on his West Charlton farm, David Wood knows the years-long struggles of dairy farming with low prices and other problems.

So for him, the new $867 billion Farm Bill is important, but it's too soon to know exactly how individual farms may be affected.

"The one place I've heard is that Margin Protection Program [a form of dairy price insurance] will be available to more farmers," Wood, who operates 203-year-old Eildon Tweed Farm, said on Friday. "Whether I can use it next time, I don't know. Before, I was too big."

Wood, who has been a Cooperative Extension agent or farmer in Saratoga County since the 1960s, noted that 80 percent of the money in the bill goes to non-farm programs.

The Farm Bill that passed both houses of Congress this week offers something for everyone.

All Capital Region representatives voted for the $867 billion bill. Each claimed it offered significant wins for their constituents, whether it be improved dairy price insurance, funding for rural broadband, or continued funding for food stamp recipients and low-income children's access to free- and reduce-price lunches in schools.

"This bill strikes the right balance, giving certainty to our farmers while protecting our most vulnerable by rejecting harsh food assistance cuts in the original House Republican bill," said U.S. Rep. Paul D.Tonko, D-Amsterdam, who was on the conference committee that settled the differences between the House and Senate farm bills.

The compromise bill passed the Senate 83-17 on Tuesday, and the House by 369-47 on Wednesday. The bill still requires President Donald Trump's signature, though there's no indication he will hold the bill up from becoming law.

His secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, called the bill's passage good news, though he lamented "missed opportunities" for "improving work requirements for [food stamps] recipients." "I comment Congress for bringing the Farm Bill across the finish line, and am encouraging President Trump to sign it," he said in a released statement.

The Farm Bill -- last updated in 2014 -- is critically important for the policies and funding priorities it sets for agriculture, which remains a top industry across New York state and across the nation. In 2012, there were 35,000 farms in New York state encompassing 7.2 million acres, and the industry's value at the time exceeded $5.4 billion annually.

For farmers, it's the single most important bill the federal government passes, said David Holck, executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency office for Saratoga, Rensselaer, Washington and Warren counties.

"Conceptually, it appears not to be a full-blown overhaul of programs, but there's tweaking and trying to improve," Holck said, adding that many details won't be known until after the USDA has done in-depth review of the legislation.

Holck noted that most people don't realize the Farm Bill also includes the federal policies for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- food stamps -- and school lunches.

While Tonko, who strongly defended food stamps during negotiations, represents the Capital Region's core cities, the region's two other representatives -- John Faso, R-Kinderhook, and Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, mostly represent the kinds of rural communities in which farm feed silos are probably the tallest structures in town.

"This bill is the result of thousands of hours of farm visits, discussions with producers, and negotiations among members of the (House Agriculture Committee) and the Senate," said Faso, who represents the Hudson Valley and Catskills and is the only upstate member of that committee. "I am proud of the bill we produced and the bipartisan manner in which we came to this agreement."

Among the bill's provisions:

-- For dairy farmers, who have struggled for the last four years with low milk prices, the bill will create a new Dairy Margin Coverage Program, with new coverage levels and discounts for farmers who participated in the previous price insurance program, widely considered a failure.

"Farmers needed stronger risk management tools in place moving into next year where there are signs that the economic stress will continue for the farm community," said David Fisher, president of the New York Farm Bureau. "In particular, the new Farm Bill enhances the dairy safety net for farms of every size, including increasing the margin that qualifies for federal insurance programs."

-- A farm stress assistance program, meanwhile, provides $10 million per year to help farmers cope with depression and other stress brought on by low prices and other aspects of rural life.

"As a population, farmers face some of the biggest challenges to accessing quality mental health care, including cultural barriers to asking for help, availability and accessibility of care, health insurance coverage and more," said Jennifer Fahy, communications director for Farm Aid, the non-profit farm support organization.

-- For farmers and other rural residents, there are grants and loans to expand internet coverage. Stefanik noted there is also $82 million for addressing the heroin and opioid abuse epidemic by increasing access to telemedicine.

"Reliable, high-speed internet access isn't a luxury anymore, it is a necessity and one of the most important tools that communities need in order to thrive," said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. "Our schools, hospitals and businesses rely on the internet in order to conduct their daily work, and it's unacceptable that some of our rural communities still don't have access to this essential technology."

-- There are specific provisions to aid farms or landowners who lease to farmers to grow specialty crops, from maple syrup to barley, which is in growing demand from the state's burgeoning craft brewing community. It also removed industrial hemp from the federal government's list of controlled substances.

Stefanik, who represents New York's North Country, said that provisions she advocated will require a comprehensive study of dairy feed costs, and allots $200 million per year for market access programs intended to promote dairy exports. "Our farmers succeed when markets are open and our nation's trade policies promote exports," Stefanik said.

New York dairy farmers have been hurt economically since Canada imposed new limits on U.S. milk imports in 2017, though the recently negotiated U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement could loosen those restrictions, if the Senate approves it.

The Farm Bill isn't going to change the basic market forces depressing the dairy industry nationwide.

"It's going to remain a struggle because we have an over-production in the dairy area, and also in the grain area," said Wood, the West Charlton farmer. "It's not been a very nice year. We're all trying to figure what we can to improve ourselves as farmers." 

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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