Farm Bill a “win” for Alabama

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, February 12, 2014

By Martha Roby

Three years ago I was standing in Ed White’s peanut field in Headland seeing first-hand the day-to-day operations that go into his family farm.

I remember it vividly because, as a new Member of Congress, I had just been assigned to the House Agriculture Committee, which is charged with crafting the Farm Bill. And, standing in Ed’s field, just one of the thousands of family farms across Alabama, it was clear just how critical the agriculture industry is in our state. It is a $70 billion industry in Alabama alone, employing more than 580,000 of our citizens.

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It is also a unique industry with one-of-a kind risks that are difficult to anticipate. Talk to a peanut farmer who has seen multiple years of flooded crops, or a cotton farmer who planted in the droughts of 2007 and 2008, and they’ll tell you what a risk it is to put a crop in the field. Apply that to farms all across the country that produce the food we put on our tables. We need agriculture policy that helps farmers mitigate that risk in part, lest they decide to just stop planting – a result that would force us to depend more and more on foreign agriculture.

That’s where the Farm Bill comes in. And, three years after I stood in Ed White’s peanut field, I’m proud to report that a new, reform-driven Farm Bill has been passed by Congress and signed into law by the president.

This newly-enacted Farm Bill is a “win” for Alabama farmers and foresters. It treats Alabama crops like peanuts and cotton fairly in relation to those in Midwestern states. It includes smart revisions to EPA regulations that will help boost our forestry industry. And, it includes a provision championed by Sen. Jeff Sessions updating USDA rules to allow Alabama farmers to improve irrigation systems.

The new Farm Bill is also a “win” for taxpayers. It ends direct payments to farmers, opting instead for more emphasis on a cost-effective and flexible crop insurance system. It eliminates nearly 100 duplicative programs, and includes reforms that save taxpayers more than $23 billion dollars overall.

Much of those savings come from the Farm Bill’s reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, or food stamps. The previous law, left over from the Pelosi-led Congress, contained too many loopholes that contributed to the food stamp rolls more than doubling over the last five years.

Food stamps have played and will continue to play an important role in taking care of our most needy Americans. But, like President Reagan said, the success of our welfare programs should be measured not by how many people the government can enroll, but by how many families can get off assistance and become self-reliant.

This Farm Bill institutes efforts to help food stamp recipients secure employment through job training and other services. It seeks to eliminate fraud and abuse, including closing a loophole that allowed states to game the system and artificially increase benefit levels. The bill also includes a provision I personally championed to require the use of E-Verify to prevent illegal immigrants from fraudulently receiving food stamp benefits.

Food stamp reforms contained in the Farm Bill provide savings to taxpayers of more than $8 billion. Are more savings needed? Absolutely. However, considering how fast “auto-pilot” spending like this has ballooned over the last several years. This is a significant step in the right direction.

Throughout this three-year Farm Bill process, I have solicited input from individuals across Central and Southeast Alabama. In 2011, I formed an Agriculture Advisory Panel, which includes at least one representative from each county in the Second Congressional District. I appreciate this group of farmers and industry professionals meeting with me regularly to discuss ways to save money and make the Farm Bill work better for Alabama farmers. And, I’m proud to say that this new Farm Bill actually includes a provision that originated from our meetings: a revision to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) restricting the practice of government paying landowners to allow fertile land to go unplanted.

Enacting this Farm Bill into law was not easy, especially considering the division in Washington right now. I say that as someone who sat in the first House Agriculture hearings, then participated in the day-long mark-up sessions, and finally served on the Conference Committee tasked with working out the final differences between the House and Senate.

The law is not perfect, but the Farm Bill shows what is possible when Members of Congress put their political differences aside, listen to their constituents, and work together to make our nation’s laws work better.

Thank you for allowing me to serve as your voice in Washington. If I can ever be of assistance, please do not hesitate to contact my office. My staff and I work for you.

Martha Roby represents Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District. She is currently serving her second term.