La. rice and sugar farmers fare well in U.S. farm bill

Louisiana rice and sugar farmers fare better in the Senate and House farm bills that are currently under or nearing floor debate, according to state and congressional delegation officials.

The nearly $1 trillion Senate farm bill that is being debated this week keeps the federal sugar program intact and provides the option for price-control insurance for southwestern Louisiana rice farms that was lacking in last year’s version of the bill, which is a key reason why both Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., opposed it in 2012.

Although there are key differences in other areas, the House bill has similar sugar and rice protections, with that bill coming up for debate as soon as June.

Unable to approve a five-year farm bill last year, the existing law was extended through Sept. 30.

Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain said that last year’s proposal, which is now defunct, was “disproportionately unfair to Southern agriculture.”

“They’re working very hard (in Congress) to have a farm bill that’s better for all of America,” Strain said. “I’m very glad.”

While the current proposals will eliminate direct federal payments to crop farmers, the bills beef up crop insurance and keep the domestic sugar industry stable. Strain added that the bills have better protections for the dairy industry as well.

Last year’s bills focused mostly on crop insurance from weather disasters, but rice’s greatest source of instability are price dips in the global rice market.

The pending bills though give the option of price-control funds, called countercyclical payments, which could support Louisiana’s $500 million rice industry during global price drops.

“I’m excited to see that the rice section of the bill has improved dramatically,” Landrieu said Tuesday.

“I’m leaning toward supporting it,” Landrieu said, adding that she will withhold final judgment until the amendment votes are finalized.

But Landrieu and Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, argued they will have to fight hard in the Senate and House to fend off amendment attempts to end the federal sugar program that places quotas on the amount of sugar imports. The program is opposed by the so-called “Big Candy” lobby.

“One thing I’m going to be really focused on is protecting and supporting the sugar program that functions effectively to balance the amount of sugar coming into our country at no subsidy to the taxpayer,” Landrieu said.

“And, yes, the price of a candy bar might be a penny or two higher, but who needs cheaper candy bars? No one,” she said, arguing that “robust” domestic sugar production is more important.

Boustany said he expects a “very contentious fight” over sugar in the House, where amendments are adopted with a majority vote as opposed to the 60-vote threshold in the Senate. “I honestly don’t have a good feel for it,” he said.

“I’m committed to supporting the sugar program, and I’m glad we have a price-based version in our commodities to support our rice farmers,” he added.

The other big fight is expected over food stamp funding in the legislation.

The Senate bill saves $17.8 billion over 10 years, or nearly $24 billion if the federal sequester budget cuts are maintained, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The House bill assumes the cuts will stay in place and cuts $40 billion over 10 years, with more than $20 billion of the cuts coming from food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The Senate bill cuts food stamps by more than $4 billion.

“The SNAP battle will be more partisan while the sugar fight will be more regional,” Boustany said.

Food stamp funding was the other key reason last year’s Senate farm bill was opposed by Vitter, who wanted more cuts.