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Farm Bill Issue Could Be Put To Rest

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WASHINGTON D.C. - Speculation that no Farm Bill will be passed this year because of a political standoff — which has farmers across the country raising their eyebrows — could suddenly be put to rest.

A bipartisan Farm Bill that will be considered on the U.S. Senate floor this week would preserve and expand key programs that in upstate New York depend on, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who outlined the proposed bill during a press conference call Wednesday. If the bill isn’t passed by Sept. 30, Congress will need to approve an extension to the current bill.

The proposed bill increases the funding for specialty crop block grants from $55 to $70 million, for example, which is used to support research programs in the state that make farms more efficient, protect farms against invasive species and help farmers find overseas markets. It also introduces a new margin insurance program for milk designed to help dairy farmers in the north country combat fluctuating prices and demand.

The state’s burgeoning wine industry, for instance, will greatly benefit from the specialty crop funding, said Mr. Schumer, who’s optimistic the bill will be passed by the Senate and House. Illustrating that point, the north country has grown seven wineries in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties over the past decade.

The state’s Market Asset Program (MAP) promotes New York wines overseas, Mr. Schumer said, and that campaign that is beginning to make headway in China.

“New York wine and grape foundations received $1 million last year and are going to need more in the coming years,” he said. “Small wineries may not have the money to ship their products overseas, but if New York gets on the bandwagon and markets their products, they’ll be able to jump on, too. Farmers hear now how important this marketing funding is to help them sell their products.”

The bill also introduces new crop insurance funding for farmers who grow fruits and vegetables, covering apples, tomatoes, grapes, potatoes and sweet corn. Specialty crops in the north country generate $9 million a year for the region’s economy.

Mr. Schumer said that crop insurance plans were particularly designed to benefit farmers in New York. Under the plan, farms that lose 35 percent or more of their crops due to the weather will be fully reimbursed for their losses.

“Vegetable and fruit farmers here have been unable to use crop insurance, so if their farms are wiped out they only get about half of it back,” he said. “Now they won’t have to wait for a complete disaster to get help.”

The New York Farm Bureau worked closely with Mr. Schumer and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y, to address concerns of farmers here in the plan, said M. Kelly Young, the bureau’s associate director of national affairs.

“New York agriculture is unique compared to other parts of the country because of its fruits, vegetables and dairy products, and this bill recognizes that more than previous ones,” Ms. Young said. “These specialty crops need more attention than other crops do, and we’ve made a lot of strides to increase state funding.”

Research to determine what types of vines and grapes work the best in different climates, for instance, could be funded by grants supported by the bill.

“The Thousand Islands region is much different than Long Island, so research to figure out how to grow crops is important.”

Arguably the most important piece of the bill for dairy farmers here in the north country is a milk-pricing program aimed at protecting farmers’ profit margins and and manage the national milk supply. To fund that program, the Milk Income Loss Contract safety net program will be axed; that program pays farmers when milk prices drop below a federal target.

The new policy will allow farmer to buy insurance that would provide a guaranteed level of income based on the difference between the price of milk and feed costs, which are determined by national rates.

“The advantages of the margin insurance program will be greater for small farms, because they’re less able to protect themselves when milk prices go down,” Ms. Young said of the program. “This is a change that all farmers in general have been asking for.”

And it’s a proposal that hundreds of dairy farmers here that sell milk have kept a close eye on, said Michael B. Kiechle, president of the Jefferson County Farm Bureau who owns a 400 acre dairy farm with 120 cattle.

Farmers’ profit margins for milk here have sharply declined over the past year, Mr. Kiechle said. Last year milk prices were about $21 per hundred-weight but have now declined to about $17. It costs the farm about $18 per hundred-weight to produce the milk, so last year’s profit margin of $3 per hundred weight is now virtually gone. The milk-feed ratio, which measures the price to purchase grain for cattle against milk prices, has similarly dropped.

“Last year it took about one pound of milk to buy three pounds of grain, it’s now about 1.42,” Mr. Kiechle said. Farmers here “can cut some of our costs, but we’re not making a living.”

Annual subsidies provided by the Direct and Counter-Cyclical Program for farmers who grow corn, soybeans, oats and other small grains will be eliminated under the bill and replaced by a new Agriculture Revenue Insurance Coverage program, said Julia C. Roberts, executive director of the New York Corn and Soybean Growers Association. Rather than making direct payments to farmers calculated by the total acreage of their farms, subsidies will be based on planted acres and calculated using a five-year average.

“It won’t be a government check for farmers anymore,” Ms. Roberts said. “I think the market-based program is a better idea that’s going to save the government money.”

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