U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow - Detroit Free Press
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Maureen Groppe, Gannett Washington Bureau) - Support no longer exists for the federal payments that some farmers get in both good times and bad, Sen. Debbie Stabenow told the Michigan Farm Bureau Friday.
The Michigan Democrat, who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, told the farmers that she's working instead to get an expanded crop insurance program included into this year's rewrite of farm policy.
"Crop insurance really is the main foundation of risk management and we need to strengthen that as we make changes," Stabenow said. "There is not support to continue direct payments so we've got to find other options to support farmers."
Wayne Wood, president of the Michigan Farm Bureau which brought 120 farmers to Washington for three days of lobbying, said he backs that change.
"That's a great tradeoff," Wood said. "I (could) look you in the eye and tell you I don't get a check to farm."
Producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton get fixed payments based on their land's past production, no matter what the price of crops. Farmers also may collect additional funds from programs tied to fluctuations in market prices and for conservation programs. They also benefit from a federally subsidized crop insurance system.
The $73.5 million that Michigan farmers received in fixed payments in 2010 ranked 20th among states, according to a database compiled by the Environmental Working Group. One reason Michigan doesn't rank higher is the direct payment program doesn't cover specialty crops such as fruits and vegetables. Stabenow wants to include those crops in the expanded crop insurance program she's working on.
Rewriting farm policy, which has to be done before current law expires at the end of September, always requires juggling competing regional interests as southern cotton farmers have different risk issues than do Illinois corn growers or Michigan apple farmers.
Passing a multi-year farm bill, which also covers nutrition programs such as food stamps, is also complicated by the tightened federal budgets.
Wood said that's why this year it was more important than ever that Michigan's farmers came to Washington to be heard.
"We're such a small percentage of the population and we're dealing with a huge deficit," he said. "A small percentage of the population maybe doesn't have the voice because our country has never had a food shortage."
Stabenow said she hopes to have a bill completed by her committee and ready for the Senate to take up by early May. House action could be a tougher haul, she said, because there are many new House members who haven't worked on a farm bill before and don't know why it's important.
"So I'm really glad you're here because we have a lot of communicating to do," Stabenow said.
Ingham County farmer Jake Wamhoff said that's why he came.
"We kind of put a personal touch to it," he said. "They see a face. They get a name. It's better than a letter."
In addition to the farm bill being worked on, another key issue for Wamhoff and other farmers is a rule proposed by the Labor Department to strengthen enforcement of child labor restrictions on farms. Children under 16 could work only on farms owned or operated by their parents.
"They couldn't run a wheelbarrow or nothing," said Brian Combs, who works on a farm in Homer that hires youth in the summer for part-time work.
The Labor Department has said it will rework the proposed rule to allow for different types of family ownership of farms.
Gwyn Lewis, whose husband works on a St. Clair County farm that has been in the family for five generations, said their children would not be able to help on the farm under the way the rule was originally proposed because her husband is not the sole owner.
"It's just so shocking," Lewis said. "Some of the things that they say are hazardous on the farm are not hazardous if you learn properly. And of course with any employee, especially your kid or your nephew, you're going to make sure they follow the safety precautions. You don't want them hurt."
Lewis and others said they were pleased that they heard support from lawmakers for their concerns.
"There has been a tremendous outcry from the farming community," Wamhoff said. "I think we've had an impact."
Contact Maureen Groppe at firstname.lastname@example.org