Opinion
9:35 am
Thu July 18, 2013

The Farm Bill: What Michigan stands to gain

Lessenberry commentary for 7/18/2013

If I were young, single, and wanted to score, my guess is that I wouldn’t go to some hot place and say -- “have you been following what’s going on with the farm bill?”

No. Well, the farm bill may not sound too sexy, but it is, especially perhaps for Michigan. My guess is that few people have been following the farm bill wars. Those politically aware may know the U.S. Senate passed one version of the bill, the House another.

This sort of thing happens all the time, and then a conference committee, really a compromise committee, haggles and then puts something together both houses then pass.

Except that today’s is a rigidly polarized world. Democrats control the Senate, Republicans the House. After an earlier attempt failed, the Republicans passed an ideologically driven bill which completely eliminated funds for what in Washington jargon is called SNAP -- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Most of us know this simply as food stamps.

And if you thought food stamps were for only a very few welfare deadbeats, think again. Nearly 1.8 million people in Michigan alone were receiving them, as of March.

Both President Obama and Michigan’s Senator Debbie Stabenow, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, say they will never agree to a bill that doesn’t include food stamps. Normally, you would assume that this would mean they would be restored to the bill, which may well happen. But in today’s ideologically polarized world, you can’t assume anything.

Incidentally, though a final farm bill isn’t a done deal, agriculture represents the political coming of age of Debbie Stabenow, who late in her second term seemed to find her place in the Senate as a very impressive chair of the agriculture committee.

Agriculture is a seventy-two billion dollar business responsible for twenty-two percent of all state jobs. Michigan is also the nation's most diverse state in terms of crops, behind only California.

You might not have guessed that’s where a social worker, folk singer, and the daughter of a car dealer from Clare would have ended up. But in the last few years, she has won rare bipartisan praise for her mastery of agriculture issues, attention to detail, and willingness to work long hours to get a farm bill done.

The Senate bill, by the way, is designed to be especially good for Michigan. The food economy is, depending on who you talk to, our second or third biggest industry. Agriculture is a seventy-two billion dollar business responsible for twenty-two percent of all state jobs. Michigan is also the nation’s most diverse state in terms of crops, behind only California.

This farm bill recognizes that by increasing funding for so-called specialty crops, such as cherries, and putting in retroactive disaster assistance for fruit and vegetable growers who had their crops wiped out by that crippling spring frost last year.

The bill does achieve net savings, in part by closing loopholes that include kicking people off food stamps who are major lottery winners, for example, and who claim expenses they don’t really have. Not getting this done before September, when the old bill expires would add one more element of uncertainty to the state‘s shaky recovery. Which we don’t need. In the long run, farm policy is a lot more sexy than you might have imagined.

After all, we all have to eat. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.