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Agriculture advocates gear up for Farm Bill fight

David Sommerstein
State officials held the first of a series of hearings on the Farm Bill in Watertown Monday

Every five years, Congress debates a huge piece of legislation that has a disproportionate impact on rural places like the North Country and central New York. It's the Farm Bill, a $100 billion a year hodge-podge to fund everything from crop insurance to food stamps.

In the past, New York has often been on the margins of the Farm Bill debate in Washington, taking a back seat to the Midwestern states of the “bread basket,” like Iowa and Illinois.

This week in Watertown, state agriculture officials launched a series of hearings to help make New York more central this go-around, at a time when the Trump administration is seeking big cuts.

Should it be called the "Farm and Food bill"?

The farm bill is really a misnomer. It’s about much more than just agriculture. At Monday’s hearing, state ag commissioner Richard Ball ticked off a list of programs the legislation funds - "conservation, nutrition, research, forestry, energy, horticulture, disaster assistance," among them, said Ball. In fact, the nutrition part – food stamps, food banks, emergency help for people who are hungry – that’s 80% of the Farm Bill.

Tina Cobb of the North Country Prenatal/Perinatal Council says when she staffs outreach booths, people come to praise the nutrition programs the Farm Bill provides.

"Women were crying and saying, 'we don’t know if we would survive without these benefits'," Cobb told the gathering of about 50 people in a meeting room on the Jefferson County fairgrounds, "so I think it’s really important that we keep that in mind as we look at the agricultural bill."

More support for dairy

When the last Farm Bill was passed in 2014, crop prices were high. But milk prices in particular have tumbled since.

"We struggle with low milk prices and we struggle with finding labor," said Jessica Scillieri-Smith, whose husband is a dairy farmer in Canton. "And so, I don’t think it’s a small farm versus large farm issue. I think we all struggle with the fact that it costs more money to produce a gallon of milk than we get paid for a gallon of milk."

Ag commissioner Richard Ball said dairy and other New York crops, from lettuce to broccoli, get short-changed compared to the big commodities like corn, soybeans, and cotton. He said he hopes the new Farm Bill changes that.

"We can’t just be thought of as a niche crop anymore. New York does figure nationally in the conversations about dairy, and we need to make sure that’s represented fully in the farm bill as we go forward,” said Ball.

People at the hearing stood up to defend business loan or education programs, land conservation efforts, hunger eradication programs, the WIC nutrition program for infants and their mothers.

"This is such high stakes"

President Donald Trump’s name didn’t come up during Monday’s meeting. But his budget plan to slash food stamps by a quarter and cut back on crop insurance programs sure seemed to be on people’s minds. Assemblywoman Addie Jenne (D-Theresa) said New York will have to fight just to keep funding for those programs level.

"All of you sitting here today gives me great hope that we can gear up because we all have to gear up. This is such high stakes,” said Jenne.

Congress has sent mixed messages so far. An initial Senate budget plan largely spares cuts from the Farm Bill. The House version cuts $1 billion a year, mostly from food stamps. Neither includes cuts as sharp as President Trump’s plan calls for.

State Senator Patty Ritchie (R-Heuvelton) chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee in New York, and hosted Monday's session. She said hearings like these set up New York’s strategy.

"This is a way the state can put together a list of items to forward on to our Congressional representation," Ritchie said.

Congresswoman Elise Stefanik has weighed in on a part of the Farm Bill. She backs a push for a better insurance program for dairy farmers.

State agriculture officials say they’ll be holding more hearings like these to hear what New York priorities should be for farm bill talks. The next one is later this month in Morrisville.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.