WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday completed a 5-year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill that cuts farm subsidies and land conservation spending by about $2 billion a year but largely protects sugar growers.
The vote was 65-34. The measure now goes to the Republican-led House where conservatives are certain to resist its costs.
Several amendements to the Farm Bill were passed, including one submitted by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) that ties crop-insurance eligibility to conservation compliance. The amendment passed by a 52-47 vote.
The move — which a long way to go before coming law — may please environmental advocates, but it displeased some other ag interest groups.
"Our members have spent a significant amount of time discussing this issue and feel this addition to the farm bill would have a negative impact toward America’s farmers," said National Corn Growers Association President Garry Niemeyer. "NCGA’s official policy states we oppose the coupling of conservation compliance to eligibility for federal crop insurance.”
While transforming the subsidy system, the Senate left intact the sugar program that for some 80 years has protected beet and sugarcane growers and sugar refiners by controlling prices and limiting imports.
The program is opposed by consumer groups and food and beverage companies that use sugar. They say it drives up costs and leads to confectioners relocating overseas. Amendments to either phase out or narrow the scope of the sugar program both failed on close votes.
While overall spending on programs covered by the bill has climbed because more people are receiving help buying food, the committee head, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, and the top Republican, Sen. Pat Roberts, said the bill would save $23 billion over the next 10 years compared with spending under the current farm bill that expires in September.
That comes from replacing four farm commodity subsidy programs with one, consolidating 23 conservation programs into 13.
The biggest change comes from eliminating direct payments to farmers whether they plant crops or not. The program, which costs about $5 billion a year, has lost much of its support at a time of $1 trillion federal deficits and when farmers in general are prospering.
The bill also prevents farm “managers,” often wealthy people who may not live or work on a farm, from receiving subsidy payments and gives greater help to fruit and vegetable producers and healthy food programs.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack praised the Senate bill for making progress toward “providing a reformed safety net for producers in times of needs,” supporting agriculture research, conserving natural resources, strengthening local food systems and promoting jobs. He expressed hope the House “will produce a bill with those same goals in mind.”
Rep. Frank Lucas, the Republican chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said that while there will be differences between the House and Senate approaches, “I hope my colleagues are encouraged by this success.” His committee is scheduled to meet on July 11 to vote on a House version of the bill.