1/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor
Ag Leaders Aim for Farm Bill Passage
HARRISBURG, Pa. — With its record-breaking crowds, the Pennsylvania Farm Show was more than a place to exhibit prized livestock and commodities.
It was a place for congressmen, senators, the governor and a U.S. Cabinet secretary to talk about their visions for the state’s farmers and agribusinesses.
Last week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr., Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and Gov. Tom Corbett, along with several U.S. congressmen, discussed their agricultural priorities as they met with farmers, public officials and others at the Farm Show Complex.
“It’s about jobs. There are thousands of jobs (attached) to what farmers and producers do here,” Vilsack said during a Jan. 11 visit. “We see rural areas being challenged by persistent poverty and young people leaving our rural areas to search for jobs elsewhere. I am deeply concerned about this.”
Vilsack points to Congress’ failure to pass a five-year Farm Bill last year as an example of the shrinking political sway of rural America.
“I think agriculture producers, ranchers and farmers — we need to speak to a broader audience,” he said. “We do a great job of talking to each other. We don’t do such a good job talking to the rest of the country.”
One issue of contention in the Farm Bill that was proposed last year was how to handle risk management. Vilsack said weather uncertainty is why that issue is so important.
“You can do everything right no water, no rain, no crop,” he said. “You have to have some system that supports you in that difficult time.”
Vilsack also attended a closed-door roundtable discussion with about 30 farmers and agricultural leaders, who talked with him about the instability of dairy and feed prices.
He said there are disagreements about solutions, but everyone agrees that something does need to change to provide greater stability in pricing.
Sen. Casey reminded the audience at the Jan. 10 public officials luncheon that the Senate passed a Farm Bill but it was the House leadership that let the bill die at the close of the last Congress.
“It was a process that went very well in the Senate. It didn’t get over the goal line in the House,” he said.
Casey, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that does not mean that the ag committees will have to start from scratch this year, and he expects the language in the new proposal will be similar to the last bill.
“If we do what we did last year, we will be in good shape,” he said, adding that he would be monitoring the dairy policy, specialty crops and conservation proposals in the new bill.
Casey said the dairy margin protection proposal is popular, but the market stabilization portion — a milk quota system — has received criticism from dairy farmers and processors.
Casey has proposed that the stabilization piece, if passed, be reviewed with the next Farm Bill.
U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, a Republican from Bellefonte, Pa., talked about Farm Bill plans in the House Agriculture Committee, where he’s a subcommittee chairman.
“I am hoping we don’t use the full extension. It is time for a reauthorization of the bill,” he said. “It is time to finish the process.”
Thompson said the goal of Chairman Frank Lucas and the House Agriculture Committee is to get its version of the Farm Bill out by April.
He talked about several proposed changes, which would increase efficiencies by consolidating programs and streamlining the application process for farmers.
Thompson indicated that House Speaker John Boehner will probably not permit supply management for dairy to pass in the legislation.
“But we are going to get (the Farm Bill) done, we are going to get some good changes on dairy to stabilize milk prices,” he said.
Thompson was also part of a small contingent touring the Farm Show on Jan. 9 with Sen. Toomey.
Two ag issues that Toomey said he’s currently watching are EPA regulations and the national ethanol program. He said he feels EPA is “almost hostile” to agriculture and that the agency needs to develop more sensible guidelines for total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs, for farm nutrient runoff.
Ethanol subsidies are driving up input costs for farmers who feed corn, Toomey said, “because 40 percent of all the corn we grow in this country ends up in gas tanks.”
Gov. Corbett spoke at the Jan. 10 public officials luncheon, saying the congressional delegation seated in the audience “could make his job easier or harder” when it comes to federal funding for several state programs.
“Please make it easier,” he told the delegation.
Corbett discussed some of his agricultural funding goals in the budget he’s preparing to submit to the General Assembly in a couple of weeks, many of which will affect county and local governments.
They include maintaining funding for the state fair program, the veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State’s ag research.
Corbett has also proposed setting aside $24 million to continue the state farmland preservation program.
Reporter Dick Wanner contributed to this story.