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Originally published Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 6:15 AM

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Farm bill reflects shifting tastes, senator’s persistent tilling

The new attention and government money devoted to healthful foods in the new farm bill stem from the growing market power of those segments of the food business, as well as profound shifts in nutrition policy and eating habits across the nation. Plus hard work by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.


The New York Times

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WASHINGTON — The farm bill signed by President Obama last month was at first glance the usual boon for soybean growers, catfish farmers and their ilk. But closer examination reveals the nation’s agriculture policy is increasingly more whole grain than white bread.

Within the bill is a significant shift in the types of farmers benefiting from taxpayer dollars, reflecting a decade of changing eating habits and cultural dispositions. Organic farmers, fruit growers and hemp producers all did well in the new bill. An emphasis on locally grown, healthful foods appeals to a broad base of their constituents, members of both major parties said.

“There is nothing hotter than farm-to-table,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich.

While traditional commodities subsidies were cut by more than 30 percent to $23 billion over 10 years, funding for fruits and vegetables and organic programs increased by more than 50 percent over the same period, to about $3 billion.

Fruit and vegetable farmers, who have been largely shut out of the crop-insurance programs that grain and other farmers have enjoyed for decades, now have far greater access. Other programs for those crops were increased by 55 percent from the 2008 bill, which expired last year, and block grants for their marketing programs grew exponentially.

In addition, money to help growers make the transition from conventional to organic farming rose to $57.5 million from $22 million. Money for oversight of the nation’s organic food program nearly doubled to $75 million over five years.

Programs that help food-stamp recipients pay for fruits and vegetables — to get healthful food into neighborhoods that have few grocery stores and to get schools to grow their own food — all received large bumps in the bill.

The new attention and government money devoted to healthful foods stem from the growing market power of those segments of the food business, as well as profound shifts in nutrition policy and eating habits across the country.

No regional warfare

“This is my fourth farm bill, and it’s the most unique I have ever been involved in,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who negotiated, prodded, cajoled and finally shepherded the bill through Congress over 2½ years. “Past farm bills pit regions against regions. I said that we were going to support all of agriculture.”

The farm bill also eased a 75-year-old restriction on growing and researching industrial hemp, paving the way for several states to begin pilot growing programs for this variety of the cannabis plant, which can be refined into oil, wax, rope, cloth, pulp and other products.

At the same time, hunting programs were protected in the farm bill, which attracted the rare approval of the National Rifle Association. The bill also ties conservation requirements to crop insurance benefits, which many environmental groups praised.

“I think this is the new coalition,” Stabenow said.

While still in the shadows of traditional farming, organics are the fastest-growing sector of the food business. Support for that movement has traditionally come from Democrats in Congress, but the organic farming provisions in the bill had broad support from both parties.

Overall, healthful food has become more politically popular because of efforts to combat childhood obesity and diabetes and a growing national interest in the farm-to-table movement promoted by first lady Michelle Obama and other national figures.

“The average member of Congress, whether they are urban or suburban, knows that is what their constituents want,” said Ferd Hoefner, the policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “Even the most ag-centric member of the Agriculture Committee knows that is what helps sell the bill when it gets to the floor.”

For farmers of fruits and vegetables, oddly referred to in ag-speak as specialty crops, the ability to participate in crop-insurance programs, which were expanded as direct payments to farmers were ended, is a major victory.

John King, a co-owner of King Orchards, which specializes in Montmorency cherries in Central Lake, Mich., was previously able to get insurance only for his apples. His cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots and raspberries went uncovered.

In 2012, the combination of a bitterly cold winter and a March heat wave resulted in King’s greatest losses in the farm’s 34-year history. “Crop insurance did not even cover half my labor bill for the year,” said King, who has already signed up for the maximum insurance for 2014.

“Over the years, the big-program crops have been able to get what they want while for specialty crops it has been, ‘Tough luck as you freeze,’ ” King said. “Well, we grow the stuff people eat and want to eat, and we do need some financial cover from this increasingly precarious weather situation.”

Bipartisan accord

On the farm bill, Stabenow was able to come to an agreement with her Republican counterparts in the Senate as well as the House, where the most conservative members sought large cuts to the food and nutrition program that makes up about 80 percent of the bill.

Stabenow had to fend off the most conservative House members, who at one point wanted drug testing for food-stamp recipients. (Stabenow told them that she would agree only if every recipient of farm-bill dollars was also tested.) But she also had to deal with some liberals who pushed back against any cuts to the food-stamp program. including a provision that had allowed some states to inflate residents’ food assistance by counting the costs of utility bills that residents did not actually have.

“I appreciate passionate advocates,” Stabenow said. “But I believe it helps to be the first one to call out situations where there is not accountability.”

Stabenow was so persistent, her colleagues, supporters and Senate aides said, that some senators began to fear her approach as she moved purposefully between the Republican and Democratic cloakrooms just off the Senate floor. The clerks there would bet over drinks whether she could get her bill passed.

In general, the bill reflects the diverse agricultural landscape of Stabenow’s home state, which plays a leading role in movements like community gardens in schools and offers a program that gives food-stamp recipients double credit for food and vegetable purchases — a model for the federal farm bill.



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