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Senate passes farm bill, but House debate yet to come

The Senate handily approved a farm bill Thursday, giving Californians a lot to chew over.

Putting aside most partisan rancor, lawmakers approved the package on a 64 to 35 vote that camouflages some tough choices still ahead. The debate now ripens in the House, where lawmakers will write their own farm bill in mid-July.

“I’m not on board with everything they’ve done, but think we’ll be able to work out our differences,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.

In coming weeks, anticipating the future House and Senate negotiations, Californians will try to retain the farm bill provisions they like while fending off the ones they fear.

The Senate bill notably includes continued funding for specialty crop programs favored by the state’s fruit-and-vegetable growers. These include the $200 million-a-year Market Access Program, which this year is funding the likes of the California Asparagus Commission and the California Kiwifruit Commission. It also includes a specialty crop research initiative and a targeted block grant program that currently steers about $18 million annually to California.

Since starting the farm bill debate June 7, senators also folded in some amendments sought by California growers.

One amendment by Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer orders a study of a new type of insurance coverage that might protect fruit and vegetable producers against lost sales due to a public safety scare. Another amendment added back $37.5 million for an air quality program used to replace old diesel tractor engines in polluted regions like the Central Valley

“The Senate-passed farm bill makes significant investments in California’s $38 billion-a-year agricultural industry, most notably in pest and disease management, organic farming and important research programs,” Feinstein said Thursday in a prepared statement.

In other areas, though, state farm leaders will try to revise the Senate’s proposals.

The Senate bill, for instance, eliminates current milk price supports and replaces them with a voluntary insurance program that’s tied to a supply management scheme designed to tamp down overproduction. Essentially, when dairy prices fall, processors would cut payments to farmers and send the difference to the government; the idea, born in the Midwest, divides the dairy industry.

“I’m very disappointed in the Senate version,” David Ahlem, vice president of Hilmar Cheese Co., said in an interview Thursday. “It’s bad policy, we don’t think it’s good for dairymen … and I just think California has more to lose.”

Ahlem was on Capitol Hill on Thursday, lobbying the House side in anticipation of the next farm bill round.

More broadly, the Senate bill eliminates direct payments for commodities such as cotton, rice, wheat and corn, and replaces them with a new subsidized insurance program.

“This represents significant reform,” Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said Thursday.

While commodity subsidies are not as important in California as they are in the South and Midwest, they are neither trivial nor constant. California cotton producers, for instance, received $54 million in federal payments in 2010 and $198 million in 2009, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

Some commodity producers, particularly in the South, want the House to retain something similar to the current direct payments.

“(We’re) still sorting through all the results,” Mark Bagby, spokesman for the Bakersfield, Calif.,-based Calcot, a large cotton growers’ cooperative, said Thursday.

The Senate farm bill will cost some $500 billion over five years and $969 billion over 10 years. Eighty percent of the spending goes toward nutrition aid and food stamps, now formally called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program nationwide and CalFresh in California.

Because nearly four million California residents currently live in households receiving food stamp aid, the state has a particularly large stake in differences between senators and House Republicans over how much to cut. The Senate bill reduces food stamp spending by some $4.5 billion, while GOP lawmakers in the House want to chop out more.

The Senate savings would come largely by eliminating a program that boosts food stamp benefits for those deemed eligible for low-income home heating assistance.