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Cochran Brings Southern Perspective to Senate Agriculture Committee

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Cochran, who says he’ll seek consensus in forging a new farm bill, says food aid programs benefit his state.

Although a farm bill is wide-ranging and sets policy for conservation, rural development, agricultural research and other areas, the commodity, or farm support, title is usually where lawmakers clash. The disputes often fall along regional lines as they did last year when Senate Agriculture produced a bill that was geared more to Midwestern growers, while Southern growers and others outside the Midwest grain and soybean belt preferred the House panel’s legislation.

A November report by the Agriculture Department on the effect of eliminating direct payments noted that in 2008, such aid represented significant income for rice growers in the South, averaging about $96.25 per acre, and for peanut producers at $45.85 per acre. Payments averaged $24.39 per acre for corn, $15.21 for wheat and $11.54 for soybeans.

Carl Zulauf, an agricultural economist at Ohio State University, said the differences among crops drive the division between those who support direct payments and those who prefer a system based more on crop insurance.

“One thing that is very clear is that rice does not receive the amount of payments under a risk management [insurance] orientation as it does under more traditional income transfer programs,” Zulauf said.

The House committee approved its farm bill but the legislation never reached the floor. Congress wound up passing a partial extension (PL 112-240) of the 2008 farm bill (PL 110-246) and leaving the Agriculture committees to try again in 2013 to produce a multiyear farm bill.

So far, Cochran, a veteran of the Senate and a courtly practitioner of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, is keeping his farm bill plans to himself. He says he will seek consensus on a committee bill and does not plan to block or delay the legislation.

He told the journalists group that target prices — preset price levels that trigger payments to farmers — have been “a key ingredient of farm legislation for the last several years,” adding, “I’m open to considering at what level we set those rates.”

Stabenow has acknowledged that she will have to factor in Southern concerns this time around.

“We have a little different dynamic in our committee with Sen. Cochran now assuming the position of ranking member,” she told the group. “I want to be able to find the middle ground that will address the concerns of our colleagues in the South but also retain the reforms in the bill.”

SNAP is another potentially contentious area. The 2012 Senate bill proposed $4.5 billion by tightening states’ use of utility allowances to qualify people for the nutrition program. The CBO’s March update eliminated the savings after concluding that the proposal would result in no significant changes in spending.

Stabenow said the committee will revisit SNAP in this year’s farm bill, but added, “There is not bipartisan support, there is not a majority in the Senate that would vote to change eligibility standards or the structure of benefits.”

And even though Cochran generally looks favorably on the food aid program, he did not rule out trying to make some cuts to the program.

“I’ll just have to look at the specifics when we get into the process,” Cochran said.

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