Washington lawmakers wrangle over farm bill

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In Washington, lawmakers are starting to wrangle over what could be an $80 billion farm bill.

The state’s dairy farmers reap the most from federal assistance through a safety net program aimed at dairy farmers facing unstable prices.

From Capitol Hill, Chad Pergram explains how the farm bill could impact Vermont.

(Pergram) Middlebury’s Bob Foster co-runs the Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury.

It’s a fifth-generation dairy operation that milks nearly 400 cows. The farm also produces organic soil and manure. Its website…is moo-doo…dot-com.
I asked Foster…why he picked that URL…since cow manure dot com …is still available.

(Foster) “It’s not manure. It’s compost. So there is a difference. Like about nine months difference in preparation.”

(Pergram) Foster’s farm is among Vermont’s top 15 recipients for federal agriculture assistance over the past decade.
Foster says that help is critical, just not for his farm, but for the country’s food supply.

(Foster) “We can’t have high-quality food competitively priced with what can be brought in from overseas unless we do some of these things. And we have to be pretty careful that we don’t make ourselves as vulnerable as maybe we have in the petroleum situation.”

(Pergram) Let’s crunch the numbers.
Over the past decade, Vermont ranks 40th out of the 50 states in agriculture subsidies collected from the feds. Still that’s just one-tenth of one percent of all agriculture subsidies.

In Vermont most of it goes to dairy producers. But the state is only tenth in dairy help from Washington. It places just ahead of Texas.

And with the farm bill on the horizon on Capitol Hill, Foster hopes Congress extends the federal milk program…described as a lifeline for the dairy industry.

(Foster) “The milk program provides a floor so that when prices collapse, it allows for compensation for that to a minimum level. So it doesn’t drop out completely from under us.”

(Pergram) Democratic Vermont Representative Peter Welch agrees. And he thinks that Vermont dairy farmers could have a powerful ally in the Wisconsin Congressman who chairs what’s arguably the most powerful committee on Capitol Hill. That’s the appropriations panel. It determines precisely how the federal government parcels out its money.

(Welch) “It helps. I mean David Obey is a friend of dairy. But the dairy politics are complicated and often times divisive. And the challenge for us is to bring people together in their common interest.”

(Pergram) The divisiveness pits dairy interests against corn interests. Soybean interests against peanut interests. Welch believes that’s a recipe for a Congressional food fight of sorts, as lawmakers tussle for the farmers in their districts.

(Welch) “The unifying principle here is to do something that helps local agriculture. In Vermont, it’s dairy.”

(Pergram) And back in Middlebury, farmer Bob Foster predicts that if Congress doesn’t boost local agriculture, predicts fewer people will enter the field.

(Foster) “Once a farm goes out it doesn’t come back in.”

(Pergram) And that’s a principle most lawmakers representing agriculture interests can all agree on whether their constituents milk cows or grow corn.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Chad Pergram on Capitol Hill.

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