Super Committee Process Worries NH Farmers

Nov 18, 2011

New Hampshire conservation groups and agricultural interests are holding their breath, watching Washington this week.

The Farm Bill – which pays for crop subsidies, conservation grants, and nutrition programs like food-stamps – is up for reauthorization.

But, as NHPR’s Sam Evans-Brown reports, this time around, the rules of the game have changed.

The Farm Bill is a big bill.

According the Congressional Budget Office, by itself it accounts for 2% of all government spending.

Like any big spending bill, every time it’s updated, there are a lot of interests that want to have their say in what goes into it.

One of those people is Roger Noonan, who owns an organic farm in New Boston.

Noonan recently took a trip down to Washington to give the New Hampshire point of view.

He’s concerned about  a whole host of programs and policies that New England farms take advantage of.

There’s money for land conservation:

Noonan: People don’t come up here to see strip malls and cul-de-sacs, they come up here to see those bucolic, agricultural scenes.

There’s programs that help farmers sell their food to schools:

Noonan: you know the ubiquitous can-of-government-cheese, they can divert some of those dollars to buy local food, whole food, real food.

New Hampshire farmers already miss out on much of the subsidies and programs in the farm bill, which tend to favor big mid-western farms.

So Noonan and other New England farmers have been lobbying hard for legislation that favors small and mid-sized farms.

Normally this is the push-pull of various interests that in-part dictates what the final bill looks like.

But this time around things are different.

That’s because the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction – the famed Super Committee – is involved.

So Noonan says that this time the process is happening behind closed doors.

Noonan: Well we don’t know anything about it; I’ve read news accounts where even lobbyists from the major commercial interests are scratching their heads wondering what’s going on that they’re not getting access.

But there is reason for hope.

The Super Committee will still be looking for recommendations on what to cut and they’ll look to the agricultural committees from both houses.

So, according to New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill, the lobbying efforts of farmers like Noonan might not fall on deaf ears.

Merrill: We have more northeastern representation on the House and senate Agricultural committees than in living memory.

Farms in the Northeast are typically smaller than in the mid-west.

Also, the lions share of the savings are likely to come from the nutrition programs that make up most of the farm bill.

This means cutting money out of programs like food stamps.

But Terry Smith, who is in charge of that program in New Hampshire, says there is waste in the food-stamp system.

Smith: The federal government pays $49 million a year to the states for high performance bonuses. Have you ever been stopped by a policeman on the highway who walked up to you and said you were driving under the speed limit, good job I’m gonna give you $20, here. That just doesn’t happen right? If you don’t do a good job in food stamps, you get a penalty. So a high performance bonus, is a redundancy.

Even so, whatever the Super Committee decides to cut out of the Farm Bill, someone will not be happy.

And what concerns Agricultural commissioner Merrill is that this time around, there won’t be any way for that someone to have their say.

Merrill: there’s always this competition that happens through the typical process. That whole thing may be short circuited this year.

It’s a whole new ball game.

The Super Committee’s deadline is next Wednesday, and on Monday they are expected to announce their proposed budget cuts.