House disaster bill includes aid to Florida growers — and a food stamp cut

The $81-billion disaster bill written by House Republicans includes $3.8 billion in disaster relief for farmers and ranchers, with Florida expected to get a large part of the money. It also creates a subsidy for seed cotton, gives dairy farmers more options for using insurance as a hedge against low prices, and includes a nearly $600 million cut in the food stamp program.

“It is … unacceptable that the House decided to target our food safety net for families in exchange for much-needed improvements in the farm safety net,” said the senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

The CBO estimated the disaster bill would reduce food stamp spending by $579 million, according to a congressional staff worker, who said the reduction was woven into arcane language about assisting cotton growers and dairy farmers. Both groups say the 2014 farm law has failed woefully to shield them from low market prices. Dairy-state senators blocked legislation earlier this year that would have aided cotton growers alone.

Near the end of the 160-page bill, in “Division C — Other Matters,” lawmakers designate seed cotton to be eligible for the same subsidies offered to corn, wheat, soybeans, and minor crops such as lentils. The loan rate, effectively a minimum price, would be 25 cents a pound. Division C would also repeal language that limits the government to spending a maximum of $20 million a year to support livestock insurance policies. The government heavily subsidizes crop insurance as an inducement for producers to buy coverage. Lawmakers such as Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota view livestock insurance as a promising way to support dairy operators.

“Expanding insurance options for dairy farmers is a good first step — but there’s more we can do to help our producers recover from tough economic times and lay the groundwork for further progress in the 2018 farm bill,” said Stabenow. The best option, she said, was to improve the insurance-like Margin Protection Program for dairy farmers. The MPP issues payments when feed costs are too close to the price farmers receive for fresh milk, but dairy groups say MPP coverage is too costly and payments are too skimpy.

Hurricane Irma caused an estimated $2.5 billion in agricultural damage in Florida. Adam Putnam, the state’s agriculture commissioner, said the potential for federal aid “is the first bit of good news we’ve heard in months.” Florida agriculture was left out of previous disaster bills in a year plagued by hurricanes in the South and wildfires in the West.

The proposed disaster funding for the USDA includes $2.6 billion for crop and livestock losses in disaster zones, $541 million for watershed and flood prevention work, $400 million for emergency conservation projects, and $165 million for repairs to rural water and sewer systems.

Irma rolled up the Florida peninsula with winds as high as 110 miles an hour and up to 15 inches of rain in early September, just as citrus crops neared harvest. The USDA lowered its forecast of the orange crop for two months in a row because of damage caused by the storm. The USDA’s latest estimate of the orange crop, 46 million boxes, is 12 million boxes lower than its initial forecast of the season, which was made in October.

To read the disaster bill, HR 4667, click here.