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A Farm Bill at the Expense of the Poor

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Two years after its deadline, a Farm Bill emerges from Congress headed to the President's desk. For months, the Agriculture Conferees struggled to compromise on the various elements of the farm bill that our nation needs.

The farm bill is undoubtedly complex, impacting international trade, environmental conservation, food safety, support to farmers, and the well-being of rural communities. However, most importantly, it also provides a safety net to millions of Americans who are in need of food assistance, justifying the bipartisan support it received in Congress for decades. While the rise of the Tea Party and an extreme ideological divide in Washington has been cause for concern, conferees lead by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) found a compromise.

Without it, we would have seen food prices rise steeply for consumers, markets would have grown more unstable for small and large farms, and economic development resources would have been unavailable for rural communities. The piece of legislation that emerged from the Senate this week is far from perfect. While subsidizing many large farms, the food assistance part of the bill is upsetting.

To find common ground, conferees had the obligation to be fair and reflect the wide-ranging needs of all Americans. Ultimately, a farm bill that protects both small and large farmers will ensure food safety, protect the environment, support rural communities, and maintain a much needed safety net for our most vulnerable citizens. While this is a bipartisan piece of legislation, the bill cut $90 a month in the food stamps program that will impact around 850,000 of the most vulnerable Americans, that's on top of the $11 a month cut that went into effect toward the end of last year.

For many states with a large agriculture-based economy, the farm bill is crucial. In North Carolina, in particular, so much was on the line including increased potential economic development for 85 rural counties, crop insurance for farmers, funding for research, and potential support for 1.6 million NC citizens who receive food assistance benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). For many years, venerable North Carolina Representative Mike McIntyre (D-NC) has fought for farmers in our state, and sadly, his leadership will be sorely missed as he prepares to retire from Congress.

Failure to develop consensus around the farm bill's package in the past two years may be due in large part to a lack of strong national leadership. Rather than finding common ground, dysfunction and extreme ideology have stifled Congress. The farm bill, which is scheduled for renewal every five years, was last passed in 2008. The continuing resolutions passed in 2012 and 2013 have just been further examples of Congress kicking the can down the road yet again.

The final package should have ensured that small farmers are equally protected as large farmers. Ten percent of farms receive roughly 70 percent of all subsidies. Encouraging large farms to expand is certainly an important goal that helps the overall agricultural sector, but these subsidies often drive land costs up while crowding out small farmers. And its money desperately needed to feed the hungry.

Do we need a Farm Bill? The answer is absolutely, yes, and there are good components of the bill headed to the President's desk. Unfortunately, it becomes very difficult to see the good for the sacrifices forced on the poor -- seniors, children and struggling farmers under the 2501 program.

There was a divided government in 2002, just like today, but the conferees worked together and President Bush signed the 2002 Farm Bill into law.

Having served as a conferee in 2002, I appreciate the difficulty of developing an acceptable bill that fulfills divergent perspectives; however, the fierce partisanship delayed the opportunity to find the best policy solution. I suspect President Obama will sign this bill, though these conferees should be labeled: "We made the poor pay the price."