While local farmers appear to be happy that a new farm bill is close to being signed into law, nutrition advocates worry that cuts to the food stamp program could further exacerbate problems for the hungry in Douglas County.
The U.S. House this week approved a five-year reauthorization of the farm bill, which funds both agricultural initiatives and programs to feed the poor. The bill seems closer to becoming law than anytime in the past two years, when it had become stalled in Congress.
The proposed bill gets rid of the $5 billion a year in direct payments to farmers whether they grew crops or not, reinvesting much of that money into an enhanced crop insurance program. It also cut about $8.5 billion over the next 10 years from food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Diane Fishburn, vice president of the Douglas County Farm Bureau, said many local farmers would gladly trade in direct payments for strengthened crop insurance.
"Crop insurance can make or break you," said Fishburn, who farms corn and soybeans and raises cattle southwest of Lawrence. "Without crop insurance or protection, we probably wouldn't have made it through the last few years of drought."
Meanwhile, Jeremy Farmer, CEO of Lawrence food pantry Just Food, said the cuts to SNAP will continue to put more of the burden for feeding the poor onto local nonprofits and food banks, which already have limited resources. He believes it will lead many pantries to purchase cheaper, less healthy food, which will, in turn, overtax the safety-net health care system.
"We can feed people macaroni and cheese and Hamburger Helper, but they're going to go to Health Care Access or Heartland Community Health Center and have a doctor tell them they have type 2 diabetes," he said. "We're going to have to pay double for this if we don't get it right."
None of the four members of Kansas' congressional voted for the farm bill, the first time that has happened.
"I think it is hard to conceive of one of the biggest agricultural states having all four members vote against a bill that attracted the support of two-thirds of the Republican party," said Burdett Loomis, a Kansas University political science professor. "I think it demonstrates, certainly on the surface, a lack of influence from our delegation." A big reason for that, Loomis noted, is U.S. Rep. Tim Huelksamp, whose district covers most of western and central Kansas, getting kicked off the House Agriculture Committee in late 2012 over disagreements with party leadership.
Lawrence's representative, Lynn Jenkins, said she voted against the bill because it costs too much without significant enough regulatory reform. The bill's projected savings of $16.6 billion over 10 years were a far cry from an earlier House version of the legislation that Jenkins supported, which included $40 billion in cuts.
Specifically, Jenkins said she opposed the high target prices for commodities and protectionist provisions for catfish farms and wanted to see a permanent fix to an inspection rule for livestock producers.
"Kansans know that this bill not only impacts our farmers and ranchers but every single American family," Jenkins said in a statement. "Over the coming weeks and months ahead, I will do everything in my power to continue to be a strong voice for both American agriculture and the American consumer."
As the legislation heads to the Senate and, after that, to President Obama, agriculture groups just want a bill passed so farmers can start planning for the future. "Having a farm bill ensures and protects our way of life," said Fishburn, from the Douglas County Farm Bureau. "At least for the next five years"