Farm Bill Update: Farms to Nowhere?
To round up enough votes to override a threatened veto of the farm bill, House and Senate negotiators have been dropping in plums for almost everybody. So it's no big surprise that there may be some last-minute money in it for a few hundred farmers in Alaska, reports Dan Morgan.
Negotiators are considering authorizing $15 million a year for "geographically disadvantaged farmers," a provision championed by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R), one of Congress's most successful practitioners of bringing home the bacon.
The money won't help ranchers or farmers in remote reaches of Montana or Kansas. It's limited to those in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Pacific territories -- and icy, mountainous Alaska. Under a provision passed last year by the Senate -- but not the House -- farmers in those jurisdictions could be eligible for a federal check if they have to travel more than 30 miles to sell their products or buy fertilizer.
How many farmers will qualify in Alaska isn't known, but it won't be large numbers. The 2002 Census of Agriculture listed only 609 Alaska farms, almost a quarter of which were under 10 acres. About 100 had sales over $50,000. Hay, barley, potatoes, and fruit and vegetables grown in greenhouses are the main products.
Some farmers say that the provision would help them offset huge increases in the transportation costs of bringing farm supplies into the state, and enable Alaska to be more self sufficient. Jane Hamilton of the Alaska Farm Bureau called the measure a high priority, and credited Stevens' office with pushing it after state farmers joined a "fly-in" to Washington last year organized by the National Farmers Union.
In this case, Stevens' ability to deliver for his state is enhanced by another political card held by Alaska farmers this year. Advocates for the U.S. dairy industry need Alaska and Hawaii dairymen to start paying into a collective pool, called a checkoff, that funds research and the promotion of milk products. With only 6 dairies now located in Alaska-- and only slightly more in Hawaii--the states have long been excused from the checkoff.
That is suddenly a problem for the domestic dairy industry, which wants language in the farm bill requiring agribusiness companies importing dairy products into the United States to contribute to the pool. Under international trade rules, the fee wouldn't be allowed unless the checkoff is ruled to be "national"--which it wouldn't be if Hawaii and Alaska were excluded.
This has given lawmakers for two states leverage to push for acceptance of help for their farmers in return for joining the checkoff. One lobbyist said it appeared Alaska dairies would have to pay only about $13,000 a year into the checkoff -- far less than they could get from the Stevens-backed provision.
Meanwhile, the dairy import fee issue is turning into a battle of the dairy titans. The National Milk Producers Federation, representing domestic cooperatives and supported by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), supports making importers pay the fee. Opposed are companies such as Kraft and Conagra, and the International Dairy Foods Association, one of the best-heeled lobbying groups in Washington.
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