January 30

House-approved farm bill has wins, losses for Maine

Many farmers would gain, food stamp recipients may lose benefits, and dairy farmers aren’t yet sure.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After years of delay, the U.S. House passed a nearly $1 trillion farm bill Wednesday that would help many Maine farmers, but could cut food stamp benefits for as many as 10,000 state residents.

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After years of delay, the U.S. House passed a nearly $1 trillion farm bill Wednesday that would help many Maine farmers, but could cut food stamp benefits for as many as 10,000 state residents.

2010 File Photo/The Associated Press

EFFECTS OF THE BILL

FOOD STAMPS

Maine is one of 15 states, along with the District of Columbia, that may be forced to absorb all of the $8 billion cut to the program over the next decade. 

MILK PRICES

The farm bill would phase out the program that helps cover costs when the amount paid to farmers for milk drops below a set price, replacing it with a subsidized dairy insurance program.

ORGANIC FARMING

In addition to funding grants to improve and expand farmers markets, the bill includes $13 million to help farmers cover the costs of certifying their crops as organic.

The five-year farm bill now headed to the Senate contains significant political compromises on several major issues.

Some Democrats were unhappy with the $800 million-per-year reduction in food stamp funding contained in the bill, but that cut was only 20 percent of the reduction originally sought by House Republicans. The bill would eliminate subsidies on some crops but would retain billions of dollars in payments for major crops such as corn and soybeans. Dairy farmers, meanwhile, were still trying to decipher a new price support program that sparked a political fight that delayed action on the bill for weeks.

The bill passed, 251-166. Maine’s two Democratic House members split their votes.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, District 2, called the bill “a boon to our state’s organic farmers” while praising funding that would help key agricultural sectors in Maine, such as potatoes and wild blueberries, two important crops in his district.

“This bipartisan bill, while not perfect, represents a true compromise that will greatly benefit Maine farmers and our state’s economy,” Michaud said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, District 1, voted against the bill despite the inclusion of several “local-foods” and organic-crop initiatives that she has pursued for years. Pingree said she objected to the $800 million per-year cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – or SNAP, as the federal food stamp program is called – and to the lack of major reforms to crop subsidy programs.

“This Farm Bill is a real missed opportunity,” Pingree said in a statement. “Subsidies for the biggest farms were protected while help for struggling families was cut.”

Following is a breakout of three areas of the 900-plus-page bill that are important to Maine: food stamps, local foods programs and dairy support.

FOOD STAMP REDUCTIONS

Maine is one of 15 states plus the District of Columbia that together might be forced to absorb the entire $8 billion in food stamp cuts over the next decade.

The reason: a little-known program dubbed “Heat and Eat” in some states that gives extra benefits to some food stamp recipients if they also receive minimal amounts of aid through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

For years, more than a dozen states have given as little as $1 each per year in LIHEAP assistance – or in Maine’s case a $5 check covering five years – to food stamp recipients who receive no other heating aid, allowing them to qualify for larger monthly SNAP allowances.

To supporters, the program is a way to maximize federal help for families who already qualify for food stamps. Critics, however, say “heat and eat” states are exploiting a loophole.

The farm bill would require states to give LIHEAP recipients at least $20 each per year for them to qualify for the program – a change that the authors contend will save more than $8 billion over 10 years by encouraging states to drop the program.

Maine officials, however, indicated the state may not drop it.

Roughly 10,000 Maine households currently take advantage of the heat and eat program, according to MaineHousing, which administers LIHEAP. If the farm bill passes, it would cost the state at least $200,000 a year, rather than the $10,000 it spends now, to keep those households in the program.

The Congressional Budget Office determined that changing the heat and eat threshold would reduce food stamp benefits by an average of $90 per month for about 850,000 households nationally.

(Continued on page 2)

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