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Federal Farm-Bill Affects Big Portion of State's Economy

By Brian Tumulty on July 14, 2012
© Poughkeepsie Journal

WASHINGTON — The percentage of New Yorkers who own or operate a farm is pretty small, yet agriculture is a big part of the state’s economy.

About 23 percent of the state’s land – 7 million acres – is used for 36,300 farms that produced $4.7 billion in revenue in 2010. The 2007 Census of Agriculture, the most recent report, counted 656 farms in Dutchess County. Farms occupied 102,360 acres. Types include dairies, orchards, vineyards and horses.

Ulster County had 501 farms, with 75,205 acres used for dairies, orchards, vineyards and crops.

Whether it’s the wine vineyards and apple orchards that dot the state, or the dairy farms that supply the growing Greek yogurt industry, New York has a stake in the farm bill working its way through Congress.

New York ranks No. 2 in production of apples, pumpkins and maple syrup, No. 3 in grapes and fresh cabbage and No. 4 in milk and dairy products. The state’s farms produce everything from horses to ducks, cut Christmas trees, tart cherries, strawberries, vegetables, melons, onions, potatoes and sweet potatoes.

New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton, a dairy farmer from Genesee County, said his members are watching closely as a reauthorization of farm programs works its way through Congress.

“Our members want to see it done because they don’t want to be in limbo,” Norton said.

Federal farm programs expire Sept. 30, so if Congress doesn’t agree on new legislation by that date lawmakers will have to approve a temporary extension of existing programs.

The Senate approved a five-year, $500 billion farm bill last month, and the House Agriculture Committee approved its version Thursday. It’s unclear when the legislation will reach the House floor. Many Democrats vow to block the House legislation because of its cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — formerly known as food stamps — which accounts for about three-quarters of spending. House Tea Party Republicans want to cut more.

Reasons New Yorkers should care about the farm bill:

• SNAP helps 1.6 million New Yorkers pay for groceries. The Senate would cut $4.5 billion from future growth of the program, which would eliminate eligibility for an estimated 500,000 people, including 300,000 New Yorkers. The House Agriculture Committee would save $16.5 billion over 10 years by cutting eligibility for 2 million to 3 million people. Congressional Republicans say SNAP’s growth needs to be controlled. Anti-hunger groups say the effort to rein in deficit spending shouldn’t be done on the backs of the poor. “Hungry and poor people must be a national priority,” said Gary Cook of Christian advocacy group Bread for the World.

• New York had 850 farms federally certified as organic producers in 2011, including about 400 dairy farms and many diversified vegetable growers, said Sarah Johnston of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. A federal program helped 601 of those farmers pay about 60 percent of the $1,060 average annual cost of keeping their organic certification. The House bill makes farmers pay the full cost.

• Fresh fruits and vegetables for school lunches. The House bill removes the word “fresh” from dietary requirements, letting schools use canned vegetables and applesauce. New York is not a major producer of canned or frozen vegetables or processed fruit, so the substituted products likely would come from other states, the Farm Bureau said.

• Dairy farmers would get a new voluntary federal insurance program to compensate them when the U.S. average of cost of production is $4 per hundredweight of milk lower than the wholesale market price. If the difference reaches $6, participants must cut back milk production to reduce oversupply. The current Milk Income Loss Contract Program, which compensates dairy farmers when wholesale prices fall below a certain level, is to expire Sept. 30.

• Farmers markets could accept the electronic debit cards used by SNAP recipients on a test basis in some locations. This would encourage food stamp recipients to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables and benefit local farmers. Mary Liz Mulligan, who manages the Bronxville Farmers Market and another near the world headquarters of PepsiCo, said many vendors already accept SNAP paper vouchers and one farmer from Pomona does accept the SNAP electronic benefit card. “They are willing to do this to help other people who are in need,” said Mulligan, noting that vendors are required to go through special training to participate.

• Apple producers who export to Canada on a wholesale basis no longer would have to undergo a federal inspection under the House bill. Canada doesn’t require the inspections. Waiving the inspections would save New York apple growers an estimated $500,000 yearly. Peter Forrence, vice president and part owner of Forrence Orchards near Plattsburgh, ships 50 to 300 trailer truckloads yearly to a processing facility 45 miles away, just over the Canadian border. The apples are processed for applesauce because their quality is insufficient to be sold fresh. “When we are in the apple harvesting mode, it would not be unusual to ship seven or eight trailer loads per day,” he said. “The inspectors are sometimes not available or they charge overtime. It gets a bit cumbersome to call an apple inspector for apples that are traveling 45 miles.” Norton calls the change “a no-brainer.”

• The rural development loan and grant program would be available to more communities under the Senate bill, which raises the population cutoff to 50,000 for communities not adjacent to metropolitan areas. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., estimates 60 rural communities in the state would qualify for the assistance with infrastructure projects such as drinking-water improvements and essential services.

• Efforts to increase rural access to broadband are in both versions of the legislation. The Senate bill lets local governments, private firms and schools apply for grants covering up to half the cost of a project and lets the most remote communities apply for reimbursement of 75 percent. “The economy of the future is going to be all done on the Internet with iPads and laptops,” Norton said. “We need to bring that capability to rural communities in New York.”

• New limits on federal aid. Direct subsidies to growers of commodities such as corn and soybeans would be replaced by an enhanced crop insurance program. The Senate bill requires farmers with an adjusted gross income over $750,000 to pay more for crop insurance. Still, the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense says the federal subsidies for crop insurance are too generous. The group backs a House proposal to roll back the crop insurance premium subsidies to the levels they were before 2000.

• Both bills streamline conservation efforts by consolidating the number of federal programs from 24 to 13, saving overhead for the Department of Agriculture and making them easier for farmers to understand.

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