Tuesday January 28, 2014 | 09:11 PM

Wild blueberry farmers in Washington County.

Today the House and Senate agriculture leaders announced a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on a five-year farm bill. The House is expected to vote on the 900 plus page bill Wednesday morning and the Senate could then vote on the bill as early as next week.

The overdue bill has a huge impact this country, with more than 16 million Americans working in agriculture related fields.

The Agricultural Act of 2014 contains major reforms, including eliminating the direct payments program, which has been in place since 1996 and costs approximately $5 billion annually and goes to farmers and landowners whether or not they grow crops. The bill effectively allocates some of the savings from the elimination of that program to the crop insurance program, which supports farmers and ranchers affected by natural disasters or significant economic losses.

The previous farm bill, which passed in 2008, expired in September 2012. It was then extended for one year and then beyond that with an emergency extension in the face of a threat of invoking language from the 1949 law – something Walter E. Whitcomb, the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry describes as somewhat of a myth, because it would raise prices on certain things to where they were shortly after WWII.

According to Commissioner Whitcomb, the delay was partially caused by lobbying efforts on some entities and ultimately a lot of messaging that had to be carefully orchestrated. Commissioner Whitcomb and his staff have been involved in the process at the state level trying to insert language that would impact the dairy farm support issue. The ultimate negotiation of the bill has been between U.S. Congressman Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) who chairs the House Committee on Agriculture and U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) who chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Examples of How Maine Farmers Will be Affected
Dairy Farm Support
One of the larger hurdles in the final negotiations was government involvement in managing dairy farmers. According to Commissioner Whitcomb, the dairy issue has been the last thing to get settled on several prior farm bills because it is almost unsolvable.

“What happened in this farm bill is pretty watershed in terms of federal dairy policy, because they actually did away with a program called Price Support, which is a misnomer anyway, because the program at the federal law was based on something so outdated that if you ever got down to the so-called support level everybody would have been out of business no matter how big, small, where you were,” Commissioner Whitcomb said. “In one sense the program was a difficult one to defend, what is has been replaced with is a program that requires the farmers to participate in buying an insurance policy that tries to protect them from the price variations.”

Think back to 2009, the worst year for dairy farmers in recent memory, when a supposed lack of export sales and larger milk supply on the market than consumers wanted resulted in prices crashing and a lot of farms going out of business. Then, once prices started to improve, farmers were confronted with astronomically high grain prices caused by the huge rush to turn it into ethanol.

AgWeb reported - An initial read of the dairy provisions of the House/Senate farm bill conference report suggests farmers with less than 200 cows will pay cheaper, more highly subsidize margin insurance premiums. The deal these smaller farms (have) is even sweeter the first two years of the five-year program, with premiums reduced by 25% of established rates for the first 4 million lb. of production.

Maine’s delegation has been working to get a further examination of the way the prices are calculated – something they feel is fundamental flawed in the way they are calculated. The bill contains a bipartisan provision authored by Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would reform the way the USDA sets dairy prices. Their provision would require the USDA to begin the hearing process to restructure the current, flawed milk pricing system and would direct the Secretary of Agriculture to release the Department's recommendations to Congress.

Fruit and Vegetable Research Programs
Both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate added some additional monies to the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) - probably one of the few things that both bodies agreed to increase the spending on.

Wild blueberry research funding comes from SCBGP, which makes money available for research related to specialty crops to every state through a competitive bid process. The SCBGP defines specialty crops as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture). In Maine that list includes potatoes, blueberries, and apples.

“Thing about wild blueberry research is we are the only place in the world that conducts that,” said Commissioner Whitcomb. “Eastern Canada does a little, but it’s the great big things that don’t taste so good (referring to cultivated blueberries). We are pretty protective of that up here, but if you are from any other state maybe with the exception of New Hampshire you think that anemic. John McCain from Arizona has been one; I’m not picking on anyone or any particular party, who has always said why in the world do we need this research targeted for this one state for this one industry. He’s got a point except if you live in Maine you think it’s pretty important.”

Funding has included the University of Maine Cooperative Extension looking at the longtime impacts of pests like the Spotted Wing Drosophila

“It has a $50 million economic impact particularly on some of those important rural parts of Maine,” Commissioner Whitcomb said referring to the state’s wild blueberry crop. “There are 500 some blueberry growers, most of whom are very very small then there are about five that are huge. This impacts both small and big.”

NPR reported Monday - The total savings of the new farm bill is estimated at around $23 billion, according to a preliminary tally of the large new bill from congressional aides that NPR's Tamara Keith has sent along. That number is arrived at by taking $10 billion in increased expenses for things such as crop insurance and support for specialty crops and bio-energy away from the total cuts of $33 billion, which are summarized here:
$19 billion cut from farm subsidy programs
$6 billion cut by combining 23 conservation programs into 13 programs
$8 billion cut from food assistance programs (reportedly by reducing fraud and abuse)

Reuters later reported – according to the Congressional Budget Office farm bill savings would total $16.6 billion over the 10 years starting in 2014 - less than lawmakers had contended.

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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