Mid-Columbia farmers relieved as House passes farm bill after years of challenges

Herald staff and Associated PressJanuary 29, 2014 

— After years of setbacks, an almost $100 billion-a-year compromise farm bill cleared the House on Wednesday despite strong opposition from conservatives who sought a bigger cut in food stamps.

The five-year bill, which preserves generous crop subsidies, heads to the Senate, where approval seems certain. The White House said President Obama would sign it.

The measure, which the House approved 251-166, had backing from the Republican leadership team, even though it makes smaller cuts to food stamps than they would have liked. After wavering for several years, the GOP leaders were seeking to put the long-stalled bill behind them and build on the success of a bipartisan budget passed earlier this month.

The bill would have a direct impact on the Mid-Columbia, said Pat Sullivan of Pasco, an orchardist and member of the Northwest Fruit Commission.

Many of the marketing promotions the commission is involved in are paid for with federal dollars matched by the commission.

"We were very concerned that if it did not pass we might lose this money," Sullivan said. "It's very important to our industry to move our produce through the pipeline. Even a small decrease in foreign and domestic marketing promotions can affect our sales."

The bill would invest $200 million a year in the Market Access Program, which the Washington Apple Commission has used to reach consumers and businesses in India, according to Sen. Maria Cantwell's office. This increased the number of Washington apples sold from a few thousand cartons to a record 3.3 million last season.

The Market Access Program also benefits overseas sales of Washington wines.

"There are more and more vinifera grapes being planted -- the 2013 harvest was the biggest ever -- and wineries are raising production," said Erica Waliser, communications manager for the Washington Wine Commission. "Those funds are critical for wineries' and grape growers' export programs."

The bill will also provide funding for two research programs, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.

"Which is great for Washington farmers," said Alan Schreiber of Pasco, the executive director of the Washington asparagus and blueberry commissions. "This is the first farm bill to pay as much, or more attention to specialty crops like blueberries and chickpeas, as it does to crops like wheat and corn."

House Speaker John Boehner did not cast a vote on the bill, a commonplace practice for a speaker, but he had issued a statement Monday saying it was "worthy of the House's support."

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., voted for the bill despite concerns from some in her caucus that the bill cut too much from the food stamp program.

The bill ultimately would cut about $800 million a year from the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program, or around 1 percent. The House had sought a 5 percent cut.

The legislation also would continue to heavily subsidize major crops for the nation's farmers while eliminating some subsidies and shifting them toward more politically defensible insurance programs.

House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., called the compromise a "miracle" after trying to get the bill passed for almost three years. An early version of the legislation was defeated on the House floor last June after conservatives said the food stamp cuts were too modest and liberal Democrats said they were too deep.

The House later passed a bill with a higher, $4 billion cut, arguing at the time that the program had spiraled out of control after costs doubled in the last five years. But cuts that high were ultimately not possible after the Senate balked and the White House threatened a veto. The Senate had sought a cut of $400 million annually.

Many House conservatives still voted against the bill -- 63 Republicans opposed it, one more than in June.

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