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Farm Bill Debate Heating Up in Colorado

The Obama Administration’s proposed budget aims to eliminate billions of dollars in subsidies that go to farmers every year regardless of need.  These direct cash payments are among the most controversial component in the sweeping Farm Bill which is up for re-authorization this year. 

Here in Colorado, Republican Congressman Cory Gardner has just wrapped up three well-attended public forums on the bill’s reauthorization this week.

KUNC’s Kirk Siegler covered one of those in Greeley and speaks with Morning Edition host Emily Boyer.

Boyer: Obviously the farm bill is closely watched in places like Congressman Gardner’s Fourth Congressional District.

Siegler: The fourth congressional district which is represented by Gardner, and specifically Weld County ranks 9th in the nation for agricultural production. It’s the only county outside of California in the top ten. This is a huge piece of legislation, which funds everything from agricultural research to food stamps to anti-obesity programs. Some people even think it should be renamed the “Food bill.”

Boyer: But this year there is a lot of focus is on the subsidies?

Siegler: Yes. There’s a growing consensus that these are going to go away. Many say they’re not justified, especially coming off 2011, which was a record year for many farmers. Subsidies are very much on the minds of the people who attended the forums this week. I spoke with Anthony Shavert who owns a family farm near the town of Otis. He drove to one of the forums in Greeley.

Shavert:“I look for this farm bill to be a shot in the butt, and I feel like 2013 on, I think this whole deal is going to crash, we’re not going to have any safety net, we’re going to be hanging out to dry.”

Boyer: I thought farmers are eternal optimists or something…

Siegler: It’s important to remember that farming is capital intensive.  One year you might make $600,000, but then the next you’ll lose it. Many farmers say if the subsidies go away, they probably won’t be able to afford disaster insurance damage from hail storms, for instance.

Boyer:  What does Representative Gardner have to say about this?

Siegler: Here’s where the story gets particularly interesting. Gardner was elected as part of a wave of Tea-Party backed Republicans that helped take control of the House in 2010 on a mandate of cutting spending. However, Gardner also comes from an agriculture dependent district which has long depended on huge amounts of government support to stay in business.

I asked Gardner about this dilemma earlier this week.

Gardner: “I think what they realize and recognize – as everybody does – we have a tremendous debt problem in this country.  They realize and recognize they’re going to be a part of the solution, but they know they can’t be all of the solution.  Willing to share a burden, they just can’t share it all.”

Siegler: One proposal that surfaced out of these meetings from both farmers and Gardner is may be more about PR than anything else. It involves replacing the old model with a new crop insurance kind of model.

Boyer: What are the chances that reforms like those might get into this year’s farm bill?

Siegler: It’s unclear. A better question may be whether or not Congress will even touch the farm bill this congressional year. Analysts are saying it has a fifty-fifty shot. This isn’t the first time the Farm bill has come up for reauthorizing in a presidential election, and it may get a short-term extension. Anthony Shavert, a farmer I spoke with, doesn’t think the election climate will help. 

Shavert: I feel like this farm bill’s coming at a really bad time.  A lot of times it’s good for a Farm Bill to come during an election year, because they take care of the farmers.  But my Dad’s told me all my life, he’s 73 years old, when the farmers are doing good and the economy’s doing bad, they will take it away from you and pump it into the economy.”

It’s worth noting that agriculture is one sector that is doing quite well here in Colorado due to high commodity prices and a booming export market. We’ll have to see how this plays out in the coming months and as the election gets nearer.

Boyer: So what’s next?

Siegler: Well next week the Senate Agriculture Committee begins its formal hearings and testimony on the Farm Bill. Its worth mentioning in that Chamber, another Colorado lawmaker – Democratic Senator Michael Bennet has an influential seat on that committee. Bennet has held similar forums to Gardner’s recently in northeast Colorado.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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