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Published February 10, 2014, 09:53 AM

At the farm bill signing

President Obama signed the farm bill Friday in Lansing, Mich., accompanied by Stabenow, who is from there, and other Democrats.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

EAST LANSING, Mich. — President Barack Obama signed a new farm bill here Friday in a speech and ceremony that reflected agriculture’s place in the modern American economy, the politics of the time and the president’s priorities.

The Agriculture Act of 2014 took four years to develop and was finalized two years after the 2008 farm bill expired.

“Congress passed a bipartisan farm bill that is going to make a big difference in communities all across this country,” Obama said, although the day was anything but bipartisan.

In traveling to Michigan to sign a bill that is estimated to cost $956 billion over 10 years, with 79 percent of that money going to nutrition programs, Obama showed he was willing to wade into largely Republican rural America with his lengthiest remarks on agriculture since his 2008 candidacy, and to gloss over those aspects of the farm bill that did not match the priorities expressed in his budgets.

Obama also showed that he has a thoroughly modern and up-to-date viewpoint on consumer sentiment, with positive comments on organic and local agriculture. But the hour-long ceremony and 23-minute presidential speech were filled with the successes and contradictions of American agriculture today.

The choice of Michigan State

The White House decision to sign the bill at Michigan State University, the institution that became the model for the land-grant system of agricultural universities, created an extraordinary moment in the life of Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a Michigan State alumna and Lansing resident.

Stabenow told Michigan reporters that she had been encouraging Obama for months to hold the ceremony at Michigan State.

When Stabenow became chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, she was viewed with alarm by some farm leaders who saw her as an urban liberal without management skills.

Stabenow became chairwoman after Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., was defeated in a bid for re-election in 2010. Lincoln, the first woman to head the committee, was viewed as much closer to large-scale commodity production.

But Stabenow has won enormous respect in all segments of the industry for her management of the farm bill and her ability to work with Republican and House colleagues. The Senate passed a farm bill twice before the Republican-controlled House took it up on the floor and then went through a tortured process of failing to pass one bill and then passing separate farm and nutrition bills before putting them back together, going to conference, and passing a conference report that left out most of the most radical tea party proposals.

Stabenow spoke briefly at the beginning of the ceremony, thanking her colleagues and describing the wide sweep of the bill. “This bill touches every American in every part of the country — from the food we eat, to the water we drink and the air we breathe,” she said.

Industrial prelude

Stabenow has put a lot of effort into pointing out that Michigan makes more than cars and is the second most diverse agricultural state in the country after California.

But with only 2 percent of the nation’s people producing its food, Obama could not resist talking about the importance of the auto industry and Stabenow’s defense of it before he got to the farm bill.

Obama said he loves coming to Michigan because “there are few places in the country that better symbolize what we’ve been through together over these last four, five years.”

“The American auto industry has always been the heartbeat of the Michigan economy and the heart of American manufacturing, “Obama said. “And today, thanks to your grit and your ingenuity and dogged determination, the American auto industry’s engines are roaring again and we are building the best cars in the world again.”

The politics of the day

Stabenow, Obama said, has been “a huge champion of American manufacturing but really shepherded through this farm bill, which was a very challenging piece of business.”

The president added that Stabenow “had worked with Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, who I think was very constructive in this process” — a comment that undoubtedly reflected appreciation that Cochran, the ranking member on Senate Agriculture and a longtime champion of programs to feed the hungry in Mississippi, insisted on keeping the cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to the minimum that would be acceptable to House Republicans.

Obama also acknowledged the role of the chairman and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee by saying “We had Rep. Frank Lucas, a Republican working with Collin Peterson, a Democrat.”

Cochran, Lucas and Peterson all declined to make the trip to Michigan.

Cochran faces a tea party primary opponent in Mississippi, as does Lucas in Oklahoma.

Peterson has filed for re-election but not announced a decision about whether to run. His decision not to be photographed with Obama even though he has worked hard on the farm bill may be a signal that Peterson more likely to run for re-election than not.

Peterson told KFGO-AM, a radio station in Detroit Lakes, Minn., that the signing should have taken place in Washington so that everyone who spent three years working on the legislation could be on hand.

He also said he had commitments already scheduled in Minnesota and could not change his plans on short notice.

It’s unclear, however, whether anyone who worked on the bill but reluctant to be associated with Obama would have attended a Washington ceremony either.

Many Senate Agriculture Committee Democratic aides flew to Michigan for the event, and a Capitol Hill source told Agweek that Cochran and Lucas had told Stabenow they would not have attended a Washington ceremony because their political opponents would use any photograph or video against them.

Peterson’s absence was particularly noticeable since Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., made the trip on Air Force One, along with Stabenow, Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich.

Also on Air Force One was Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, who represented House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Minn., on the conference committee and had voted for the bill even though it contained a cut to food stamps that made the legislation unacceptable to many liberal Democrats and anti-hunger activists.

The signing ceremony was completely Democratic. During the flight to Lansing, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that 50 members of Congress had been invited to attend the event, but that no Republicans accepted the invitation.

“Everyone invited has to speak for himself or herself about their decision to attend or not attend,” Carney said.

Asked if Obama was disappointed no Republicans came, Carney said, “This was a bipartisan effort and everyone involved in it deserves credit. The president is happy to share credit for that. The members that are on board today were deeply involved in helping this come about and the president is very glad to have them join him.”

Some Republicans said they did not want to come because Obama has said he will use executive orders to make changes to policy since it is so hard to get legislation through Congress.

But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discounted that, noting that the president has still said he wants to work with Congress. On the executive orders, Vilsack said, the American people “respect action.”

Perhaps voters in rural areas will reward the Republican senators and House members for not appearing close to the Democratic president. But their absence left the last act of the new farm bill — legislation widely praised by the nation’s farm leaders — in the hands of Obama, Stabenow and the other Democrats, and from a visual standpoint, the Democrats will get all the credit for it.

The substance of the bill

Obama devoted relatively little time in the speech to discussing the details of the farm program.

Although the farm bill does not cut the crop insurance subsidies as much as his budgets had proposed, or impose payment limitations as tough as he suggested, Obama said the bill “does all this while reforming our agricultural programs, so this bill helps to clamp down on loopholes that allowed people to receive benefits year after year, whether they were planting crops or not.”

“And it saves taxpayers hard-earned dollars by making sure that we only support farmers when disaster strikes or prices drop.”

Obama noted that American agriculture generally has done well in the past five years — the period of his administration — with “the strongest stretch of farm exports in our history.”

Perhaps because agriculture has done so well, and is such a Republican constituency, Obama seemed to go out of his way to describe the problems the new farm bill will address.

Noting that Illinois, the state he represented in the Senate, is a farm state, Obama said, “I’ve seen how hard it can be to be a farmer. There are a lot of big producers who are doing really well, but there are even more small farms, family farms, where folks are just scratching out a living and increasingly vulnerable to difficulties in financing and all the inputs involved.

“Farmers sometimes having to work off the farm, they’ve got a couple of jobs outside the farm just to get health care, just to pay the bills, trying to keep it in the family, and it’s very hard for young farmers to get started.”

A young farmer named Ben LaCross, a cherry grower from Cedar, Mich., who testified at Stabenow’s first farm bill hearing, introduced the president.

LaCross noted that the new farm bill will provide crop insurance to him and other fruit growers who were unable to obtain insurance before.

Obama mentioned this as well, but added, “The farm bill is not just about helping farmers.”

Obama said the farm bill would provide a safety net for agriculture and encouraging the innovations he had seen earlier in the day on a tour of Michigan Biotechnology Institute, which is working with local businesses to produce renewable fuels and grow crops that are healthier and more resistant to disease.

“Some students are even raising their own piglets on an organic farm, Obama said. “When I was in college, I lived in a pig sty,” the president commented, “but I didn’t work in one. So I’m impressed by that. That’s no joke, by the way. Your hygiene improves as you get older.”

But Obama also mentioned that many young people in rural areas “feel like they’ve got to leave in order to have opportunity” and he said the farm bill will also help build rural communities by “investing in hospitals and schools, affordable housing, broadband infrastructure — all the things that help attract more businesses and make life easier for working families.”

And jumping into controversial territory, Obama said the farm bill “boosts conservation efforts so that our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy places like the Mississippi River Valley and Chesapeake Bay.”

Rural leaders are supportive of the farm bill provisions to help with environmental cleanup, but distressed by the administration’s push to have the Environmental Protection Agency use the clean air and water acts to require clean up.

SNAP, organics and local agriculture

Obama also proved once again that he has moved beyond the old Democratic idea that the only concern about feeding hungry people is to give them enough calories.

He spoke passionately and at length about the importance of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps.

“The second thing this farm bill does — that is huge — is help make sure America’s children don’t go hungry … For more than half a century, this country has helped Americans put food on the table when they hit a rough patch, or when they’re working hard but aren’t making enough money to feed their kids. They’re not looking for a handout, these folks, they’re looking for a hand up a bridge to help get them through some tough times.”

“That’s why my position has always been that any farm bill I sign must include protections for vulnerable Americans, and thanks to the good work of Debbie and others, this bill does that.”

Anti-hunger activists would disagree with that statement, since the bill cuts $8 billion from nutrition programs over 10 years by stiffening requirements for the food stamp program over 10 years while increasing funding for some commodity distribution programs.

In budget documents Obama called for no cuts to nutrition programs, but he didn’t mention that he had accepted a provision to require states to make at least a $20 per year Low-Income Heating and Energy Program payment to trigger an increase in food stamp benefits.

At the same time, Obama said he was pleased that the bill “supports local food by investing in things like farmers markets and organic agriculture” — a position that will please nutritionists more than anti-hunger activists.

Those provisions, he said, are making Michelle Obama, who is famed for her kitchen garden and child anti-obesity initiative “very happy.”

“And when Michelle is happy, I don’t know about everybody being happy, but I know I’m happy,” the president said.

Smaller producers like LaCross, he said, will have “the opportunity to sell more of their products directly, without a bunch of processing and distributors and middlemen that make it harder for them to achieve. And it means that people are going to have healthier diets, which is, in turn, going to reduce incidents of childhood obesity and keep us healthier, which saves us all money.”

Obama concluded by saying that the bill doesn’t include everything that he’d have liked to see, but that it had been “a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come through with this bill, break the cycle of short-sighted, crisis-driven partisan decision-making, and actually get this stuff done.”