WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved a federal farm bill that critics contend leaves the Louisiana rice industry in the lurch.
Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., both voted against the farm bill that takes away direct payments and price-control payments to commodities farmers, including south Louisiana’s roughly 2,000 rice farmers.
Landrieu took to the Senate floor to explain her vote against a bill she said she supports in most ways except for how it affects the $640 million Louisiana rice industry.
“Louisiana needs a farm bill that supports all of its farmers,” she said. “This bill failed in one important area.”
Landrieu added that the issues extend beyond Louisiana. “I know some of the peanut farmers in Georgia have the same concerns,” she said.
Rice is a huge industry in Louisiana, Landrieu said, and it can represent sometimes “heartbreaking” returns for those who dedicate their lives to farming. The bill in its current format could cause Louisiana’s rice industry to “fail,” she said.
Federal funding for the rice industry was cut by nearly 40 percent more than federal funds for more prevalent crops nationally like corn and soybeans, she said.
The Senate passed the farm bill with a 64-35 vote that Republican and Democratic senators said cuts overall spending by $23 billion.
The issue for the rice industry is that direct payments and price-control funds, called countercyclical payments, were axed in favor of adding more money to crop insurance programs. But rice is seen as a stable crop and does not need to rely on crop insurance unlike corn and soybeans, according to Steve Linscombe and Johnny Saichuk of the LSU Agricultural Center.
Landrieu and others had hoped to maintain countercyclical payments that would assist commodities like rice more, but the effort failed in the Senate. Such measures would serve as safety nets for farmers when the prices for crops like rice are low.
Landrieu said she is optimistic the House will be more kind to the rice industry as it picks up the legislation.
U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette; Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia; Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge; Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman; and others sent a letter earlier this week to the House Agriculture Committee seeking enhancements for countercyclical policies for commodities like rice, as well as other issues.
“The provisions included in this letter recognize the various challenges affecting our south Louisiana rice farmers, while highlighting practical solutions for a workable Farm Bill,” Boustany said in a prepared statement. “With our state serving as the country’s third-largest producer of rice, this crop serves an integral role in Louisiana’s culture and cuisine. I firmly believe the provisions outlined in the letter should be included in the Farm Bill that is reported from the committee.”
In an email response, Vitter was critical of the impact of the bill on rice farmers and he also took a shot at food stamp spending.
“This farm bill went in the wrong direction with two major provisions,” Vitter stated. “It continues the massive increase in the federal food stamp program — 440 percent since 2000, and it puts our rice farmers at a significantly unfair disadvantage with other commodities.”
In one key area where the farm bill succeeded, Landrieu said, the Senate fought off efforts by some to cut the federal sugar program. Doing so could have crippled the Louisiana sugar industry, she said.
Landrieu also said she will push for opening Louisiana’s rice market to other nations like Cuba in order to assist rice farmers.
The bill next faces action in the House. Differences on the legislation will likely have to be worked out in a House-Senate negotiating committee, then returned to both chambers for final votes.