11/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Sarah L. Hamby Connecticut Correspondent
WOODSTOCK, Conn. — Rep. Joe Courtney, who represents the mostly rural eastern half of Connecticut, is the first congressman from Connecticut to serve on the House Agriculture Committee in 100 years. As such, the congressman often finds that he must speak pointedly on behalf of New England farmers, reminding Washington that “Connecticut is much overlooked in terms of value from the USDA.”
On Nov. 6, Courtney spent the day in what is known as the Quiet Corner of Connecticut; small, rural communities tucked in to The Last Green Valley, otherwise known as the National Heritage Corridor. After visiting several dairy farms, a local vineyard and stopping by The Fabyan Sugar Shack in Thompson, he spent some time addressing federal agriculture concerns, the Farm Bill and other issues with local farmers from half a dozen surrounding towns in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Courtney was joined by former state Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, who now serves as Connecticut’s executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, as well as state Rep. Mike Alberts, R-Woodstock.
“I’m interested in any programs that the congressman might introduce that I, as a state legislator, might be able to provide support for,” Alberts said. “Woodstock is Connecticut’s leading dairy producer. I think we have 10 working dairy farms we need to preserve that heritage and that open space.”
After a brief introduction, Courtney dove head first into the issues closest to the hearts of small town farmers. He noted immediately that the Farm Bill, an increasingly volatile piece of legislation to farmers and consumers alike, is more than a year overdue. The White House, he said, was engaged and talking with the chair of the Agriculture Committee and with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
There are, however, “hot spot” issues that generally separate the House and Senate. The Dairy Security Act, for instance, passed in the Senate but was stripped in the House. Some of the farmers in attendance voiced their concern over the current and previous versions of the Dairy Security Act. “Large producers, mega-producers, should not benefit from the government by over producing,” said one farmer.
Then there is the matter of SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Just this month, recipients lost much needed grocery money with the end of additional funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, something Courtney is painfully aware of as a significant number of his constituents rely on food stamp assistance.
In September, the House approved a bill that would cut nearly $40 billion from the program in the name of “welfare reform.”
Other items still have to be “hammered out,” according to Courtney, including rural development, interstate agricultural transit and GMO laws. Courtney noted the “King Amendment” — the Protect Interstate Commerce Act proposed by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa — and said that some of the bigger producers supported this piece of the Farm Bill.
“Frankly,” said Courtney, “it’s not an issue that Congress should decide. If it violates interstate commerce, let the courts decide.”
Of particular interest to many of the farmers at the Woodstock Town Hall was immigration reform. The Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill in June. New legislation would allow undocumented agricultural workers to apply for a “blue card.” After a significant period of time — five years of working at least 100 days a year or three years of 150 days a year — a blue-card holder would be allowed to apply for permanent residency, which would allow a faster path to citizenship.
Hurlburt said he fully supports this transition. “We’re really going to be experts on farmworkers and farm issues,” he said. “We would be the actual registry of farmworkers.”
Courtney said that the House and Senate both have a strong incentive to pass the Farm Bill as soon as possible. If a bill were passed immediately, $1 million in savings could be applied to the “sequester” right away, he said. If the Agriculture Committee can’t make these important decisions on their own, the Budget Committee could step in and make key decisions regarding the Farm Bill.
Hurlburt said, “We would prefer the people who decide where the savings come from are people who understand” farming.
Additionally, with no Farm Bill in place to prohibit dairy supports from expiring, milk prices could increase significantly come 2015.
Legislators hope to have a bill in place by Thanksgiving.
As the meeting came to a close, farmers thanked Courtney for taking the time to meet with them.
Stewart Morse, a Woodstock farmer and member of the Woodstock Agricultural Committee, said, “Joe Courtney has spent a good deal of time in northeastern Connecticut, touring agricultural venues he is pretty well versed in what we need.”
“I really think that he’s on the farmer’s side,” said Douglas Young, co-owner of Woodstock Orchards LLC.