WASHINGTON — Congress is preparing to debate major farm and food policy bills that would likely cut funding to programs used by many low-income Mainers but could separately provide a boost to Maine’s thriving local foods movement.
Much to the dismay of the nation’s agriculture industry, Congress failed to pass a new farm bill amid last year’s election-year politics. But this past week, House and Senate agriculture committees passed competing versions of new, five-year farm bills that set policies for everything from drought insurance to food stamps.
Floor action will begin this week on the Senate’s $955 billion farm bill, although the more politically fractured House is not expected to take up its controversial $940 billion bill until later this summer. The two sides will then have until Sept. 30 to work out a compromise.
The biggest political debates are expected to be over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as the food stamp program. The House version would cut $20.5 billion in food stamp funding while the Senate version would cut $4.1 billion from the program.
More than 250,000 Mainers — or roughly 19 percent of the state’s population — received food stamp benefits in Maine in 2012. That number is up considerably in Maine and other states as a result of the recent recession and program expansions under the Obama administration.
While some Republicans say the cuts to food stamps do not go deep enough, many Democrats — including Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District — contend they are too austere given the fragile economy. Pingree, a former member of the House Agriculture Committee, voted against a similar farm bill in committee last year because of the food stamp cuts.
“She is adamantly opposed to that level of cuts,” her spokesman, Willy Ritch, said Friday. While the congresswoman has not said whether she will support the current bill, Ritch said the food stamps issue would make a difference in her vote.
Senate Democratic leaders such as Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan have said they would not support the food stamp eligibility changes proposed by the House or the scope of the funding cuts.
“I absolutely reject the level of cuts and the way this is done in the House,” Stabenow said Thursday, according to The Associated Press.
Pingree, like many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, will have to balance her distaste for cuts to the food stamp program with her support for aspects of the bill important to farmers in her home state — including some measures she successfully worked to add to the farm bill.
Unlike in many states, agriculture is not only a growing industry in Maine, but the average age of a Maine farmer is falling. That is because of the rapid growth of small, diversified farms — and particularly organic farms — at a time when the “local foods” movement has taken off in Maine.
“It’s really good for Maine agriculture because people are concerned about their food, where it comes from and how it is produced,” said Jon Olson, executive secretary of the Maine Farm Bureau.
One measure sponsored by Pingree during the past two years and incorporated into both the House and Senate farm bills this year would expand nationwide a pilot program now in place in Portland that allows schools to use federal funding to purchase cafeteria food from local farms.
Another measure included in both bills would help farmers markets obtain electronic readers for food stamp benefit cards, thereby allowing low-income individuals to purchase produce from local farmers.
Heather Spalding and Dave Colson with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association said those “local foods” proposals are important to the state’s growing farm industry. MOFGA is also hoping to protect federal funding for “journeyman” programs that cover the costs of placing aspiring — and often young — farmers with veteran farmers to help them develop skills, as well as a program that helps farmers pay the costs of gaining certification for their farms as organic farms.
Both MOFGA and the Maine Farm Bureau are also hoping that the Senate will amend the bill to allow poultry farmers to rent out their slaughter facilities to other poultry farmers. This would address the dual problem in Maine of a shortage of slaughter facilities and what many say are excessively high costs of meeting USDA standards for slaughter facilities.
Another amendment potentially in the works would end the current prohibition on the sale of meat inspected in one state in another state.
“As it stands now, a Maine farmer that has meat inspected by a state inspector in Maine cannot sell meat in New Hampshire, but meat from all over the world can be sent to New Hampshire [for sale],” said Olson. “That doesn’t make sense.”