This week Congress is considering a new kind of Farm Bill. The bill marks a major step in changing the paradigm in American agriculture policy: It ends outdated farm subsidies, expands support for healthier and more locally-based food systems, strengthens our country's commitment to preserve our land and water and protects food assistance for families while addressing program misuse. And the bill also happens to be a rare example of a major jobs bill that could get done in an extremely divided Congress.
The new Farm Bill ends indefensible government subsidies like direct payments, which pay farmers every year whether they need it or not. Members of both parties have been trying to end direct payments for years, but these subsidies are like the zombies of the federal budget -- no matter how many shots they take, they just won't die.
But no more. With the 2014 Farm Bill, the days of direct payment subsidies are over.
This isn't your father's Farm Bill.
From now on, farmers will protect themselves from disaster with risk management programs like crop insurance. Instead of getting a government check even in good times, farmers will pay an insurance bill every year and will only receive support from that insurance in years when they take a loss. Because crop insurance is very expensive for most farmers, the federal government helps pay a portion of the premium. This approach saves taxpayers billions of dollars and is much more sensible than direct payments.
Our agriculture economy is increasingly based on rising consumer demand for healthy, locally grown foods. We're investing more in programs to promote fruits and vegetables. We provide over four times more funding for farmers' markets and strong support for growers who want to transition to organics. We create local food hubs to help institutions like hospitals, restaurants and schools buy more local foods.
The Farm Bill is also all about protecting our land and clean water. For the first time, Congress will pass a Farm Bill that invests more in protecting land and water than it spends on farm commodity programs. And the bill contains an historic agreement between environmental and farm organizations to require environmentally sound farming practices for any farmer who receives crop insurance support.
Just as crop insurance supports farmers when they have been hit by a natural disaster, food assistance supports families who have been hit by an economic disaster. The Farm Bill protects the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP aka food stamps) for families. The bill contains NONE of the damaging policies put forward by House Republicans that would eliminate help for millions of Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and need temporary help to put food on the table. We've ensured that no one will be removed from SNAP and that all families will get 100 percent of the benefits they are intended to get under the current program.
Instead, our Farm Bill focuses on fraud and misuse. All of the bill's savings in food assistance are achieved by addressing an unintended loophole that allows those getting food assistance to get credit for a utility bill they don't actually have. Here's how it works: SNAP benefits are calculated by comparing individuals' income with their expenses. Seventeen states are giving $1 per year in home heating assistance to individuals who do not have a heating bill because enrolling them in the home heating program makes the person's expenses seem greater than they really are, resulting in an overpayment of benefits.
The Washington Post calls this loophole a "black eye" on SNAP that is "a gift to SNAP's perennial opponents." The New York Times agrees, saying, "This Farm Bill is clearly worthy of support, particularly because it will prevent austerity fanatics in future Congresses from gutting food stamps for the next five years..."
To address the loophole, the Farm Bill would simply require anyone getting less than $20 per year in home heating assistance to show they actually have a heating bill. This will ensure that states are not artificially inflating SNAP benefits. For any SNAP recipient getting more than $20 per year in home heating assistance (96 percent of all people getting food assistance), nothing will change.
Meanwhile, the Farm Bill doubles SNAP benefits for low-income families when they buy healthy produce at farmer's markets, increases funding for food banks, and provides financing for new grocery stores in underserved areas. And to improve upon America's leadership in helping regions around the world in crisis, international food aid programs are reformed, allowing us to feed 500,000 more hungry people in emergency areas around the world with no additional cost.
Along with protecting our agriculture economy and families from disaster, we take steps to help grow this key part of our economy and create jobs. Sixteen million American jobs depend on agriculture. Agriculture exports have tripled since 2000, and every additional $1 billion in agricultural exports creates 8,400 American jobs. The Farm Bill boosts exports, invests in research, grows American bio-based manufacturing and bio-energy, and helps rural communities create a better environment for businesses.
This makes the Farm Bill a rare example of a major bipartisan jobs bill that will make its way through Washington's bitter atmosphere.
The choice is simple -- we can cling to the outdated and bloated farm policies of the past, or move to more responsible and cost-effective farm programs, focus more on healthy, locally grown food initiatives, provide critical food help for families in need, protect our land and water and grow our economy.
I believe it's time for a new era. It's time to pass a new kind of Farm Bill.
U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow is the Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry