‘Farm bill' isn't just about ag, Vilsack says

Nearly four-fifths of the $100 billion in annual spending under the proposed farm bill would go to nutrition programs

CEDAR RAPIDS — The so-called farm bill being debated by the U.S. Senate is “one of the most important pieces of legislation Congress will consider this year as it relates to the economy of Iowa,” U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley said Monday in Cedar Rapids.

But with fewer members of Congress representing the declining rural population, it’s hard to put together the votes needed to pass the legislation, he said at a farm bill listening post at Kirkwood Community College with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Given the diversity of opinions on the proposal expressed by the 80-plus people who attended the session, that hardly seems surprising. While there was general agreement on the need for passing a new farm bill before the current legislation expires Sept. 30, there was less consensus on what should be included.

It’s more than a “farm bill,” Vilsack said, emphasizing that bill’s title — Food, Farm and Jobs Bill — suggests the various goals of the legislation.

“The problem with just referring to it as a farm bill is that it speaks very directly to the 2 percent of the population that qualifies as a farmer,” Vilsack said. “But it doesn’t say much to the other 98 percent.”

“The reality is this bill impacts every single one of us every single day,” the Democratic former Iowa governor said. “So it’s important for the rest of the country to understand that this is their legislation. It’s not just the farmers’ legislation. It’s about food. It’s about jobs. It’s about American opportunity.”

Veteran and Kirkwood student Mark Shortmade an emotional plea to Vilsack and Braley for more jobs and opportunity for his fellow returning veterans. He wondered if the farm bill could be used to help unemployed veterans “to get back to farming, doing something they are passionate about.”

Vilsack didn’t need to be convinced. He told Short about a beginning farmers’ program and microlending to give young farmers a foothold so they can get experience and, perhaps, qualify for that beginning farmers’ program.

“Sixteen percent of America’s population, nearly 40 percent of America’s military, comes from these rural areas,” he said. They do that because they’ve been raised with a value system “that respects and understands hard work and responsibility. One that also understands a very basic principle of farms: That you can’t keep taking from the land. You’ve got to give something back in order for it to continue to be productive.”

The importance of the conservation component of the farm bill — giving back and caring for the land — was talked up by farmers as well as representatives of Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever. High commodity prices are encouraging some farmers to convert conservation acres to row crop production, according to Iowa Ducks Unlimited State Chairman Frank Mertz. He asked Vilsack and Braley, a Waterloo Democrat, to support “sod-saver” legislation aimed at protecting native grasslands.

There might be less pressure to expand and further concentrate ag land ownership and production if the crop insurance provisions of the farm bill weren’t so generous, said Jeff Klinge, a corn and beef farmer from Clayton County.

Subsidized crop insurance guarantees farmers an income, he said, and leads them to expand their operations in ways that hurt conservation efforts as well as rural communities.

“Acres are coming out of the (Conservation Reserve Program) and going into row crop production because there’s more money to be made,” Klinge said.

Jack Kintzle of Coggon, former president of the National Corn Growers Association, suggested farmers should pay more for crop insurance if they don’t implement conservation practices.

David Differding of Timeless Prairie Orchard near Winthrop just wishes he could get crop insurance for his dwarf apple trees. He can get insurance to cover losses from hail or other weather-related damage to his apples, but not his trees. If he has to replace a tree, it takes four to five years before he can harvest apples from it.

“You can get insurance for a dairy cow,” Differding said. “Well, my dairy cows give apples.”

And Cindy Jones, who served on Vilsack’s gubernatorial staff, spoke on behalf of food banks and the nutrition component of the farm bill. Nearly four-fifths of the $100 billion in annual spending under the proposed farm bill would go to nutrition programs. But only 8 percent of those receiving food aid from the bill are food stamp recipients, she said. Others are schoolchildren, seniors on limited income and the working poor.

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