Farm Bill negotiations to begin Wednesday

WASHINGTON — Bipartisan negotiations to reach a compromise on the much-delayed federal farm bill begin Wednesday with the Louisiana congressional delegation hoping to ensure the state’s rice and sugar cane industries remain protected.

The bicameral conference committee talks are beginning with a deep partisan divide over the level of funding for food stamps, called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The Senate-passed bill cuts $4 billion from food stamps, while the House bill axes out a much larger $40 billion.

Regardless, starting next week, a family of four on SNAP will receive $36 less per month for meals while a single adult will get $11 less because of program cuts going into place.

Both the House and Senate bills continue the nation’s federal sugar program that places restrictions on the level of sugar imported into the country.

Critics argue the program is anti-free market.

Both bills also eliminate direct payments for farmers, but the bills benefit rice farmers by giving them the option of receiving price-controlled insurance funds, called countercyclical payments, which could support Louisiana’s $500 million rice industry during global price drops.

Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain said it is time for Congress to finally pass a farm bill that protects the state’s agricultural interests.

“They really need to get this done before they leave for Christmas vacation,” Strain said. “The sense of urgency is the farmers have to have a sense of stability. There has to be certainty.”

Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, said it is critical for Congress to pass a farm bill before the end of the year when farmers go to the banks for loans to fund their 2014 crop cycles.

“My prime concern is to make sure our programs that protect our rice farmers and sugar cane farmers remain intact, and I think there’s no reason to believe they won’t,” Boustany said.

“Agriculture, if you take our sugar cane industry, rice, soybeans, cotton, these commodities and the agriculture sector is a very, very big part of the Louisiana economy.”

Strain bemoaned the ongoing fight over food stamps.

“It’s almost like it’s being held hostage because of ideological differences, and we have to get past that,” he said.

Boustany said the food stamps fight is hard to predict.

“We’re so far apart on it (SNAP), it’s too early for me to even comment on what direction we’ll see with that. Obviously, we need to see reforms in the program.”

But Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, is sharply critical of House Republicans for trying to gut food stamp funding. He said savings can be found within SNAP without taking meals away from needy families.

In Louisiana, 20 percent of the state’s residents qualify for food stamps.

“For some reason, people view SNAP as a program for lazy African-Americans and it’s just not true,” Richmond said.

He said a substantial portion of the recipients have jobs but need extra assistance for their families.

“What makes this country different is we try to help people and especially those people who are trying to help themselves.”

Richmond said he cannot stomach substantial cuts to the food stamp program.

“One of the poorest states in the country ought not be in the business of saying and leading the charge to say we’re going to cut SNAP benefits, he said.”