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Bill boosts farmers, cuts food stamps

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan Farm Bill that’s soon to be voted on in Congress looks like a boon to farmers of Western New York – at the expense of food stamp recipients in cities like Buffalo.

The bill, which House and Senate negotiators completed late Tuesday, provides a new insurance program for growers of “specialty crops” such as the apples from Niagara County’s orchards, while apparently protecting upstate dairy farmers from the worst of the deep cuts in farm support programs.

Meanwhile, though, a complex change in the food stamp program could reduce benefits for 300,000 New York households, according to the office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

About 12,000 families in Erie and Niagara counties could be affected. And according to the Congressional Budget Office, the affected families could see their benefits cut by $90 a month.

The bill’s likely impact led to an unusual split between New York’s two Democratic senators Tuesday, as Sen. Charles E. Schumer held a conference call to rave about how good the bill will be for farmers shortly before Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand told reporters that she plans to vote against it.

“That’s because one of my highest priorities is making sure that children don’t go to bed hungry in our state,” said Gillibrand, who, unlike Schumer, serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

She maintains that the bill’s cuts to the food stamp program – formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – will make it much harder for many poor people in the state to feed their families. A $90-a-month cut means one less week of groceries for some families, Gillibrand said, unless they make difficult trade-offs such as going without gasoline or prescription medications.

The five-year bill cuts funding for SNAP by about $8.6 billion, and it does it in a way that places more of the burden on cold-weather states such as New York.

The cuts are focused on what critics call the “heat and eat” loophole, which New York and a handful of other states use to boost food stamp payments for some renters. In those states, poor apartment dwellers whose utility costs are included in their rent are given a minimal payment from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – which then qualifies them for higher food stamp payments.

To Gillibrand and others who oppose the food stamp cut, “heat and eat” isn’t a loophole, but a logical way of boosting federal aid to poor people who don’t get a full LIHEAP payment because their heating costs are buried in their rent.

“This would totally affect Western New York, Buffalo and Erie County,” said Kelly Ann Kowalski, director of Food for All, a Buffalo nonprofit that aims to address hunger in the community. “People will rely more on food pantries because of this.”

What’s more, the loss of those benefits would mean an economic hit to all of Western New York, said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.

“This would basically take $13 million in demand out of the Buffalo Niagara economy every year,” said Higgins, who said he plans to vote against the Farm Bill when it comes to the House floor today.

Then again, to Republicans such as Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence, the heat and eat loophole needed to be closed.

“That was a loophole or manipulation of the program that was never intended,” said Collins, who added: “No one who deserves food stamps is getting any cuts.”

In fact, the food stamp cuts in the bill are far lower than the $40 billion reduction over 10 years that House Republicans had demanded.

“The Republicans wanted to cut a huge amount and we greatly pared that down,” Schumer said. Saying he opposed the food stamp cuts and would fight to undo them later, Schumer added: “You can’t always get what you want.”

Nevertheless, Schumer and Dean Norton, the president of the New York Farm Bureau, got a lot of what they wanted in the Farm Bill compromise.

“This is a really good day for upstate New York agriculture,” Schumer said.

Most notably, while eliminating direct farm payments and saving $23 billion overall, the farm bill extends the federal crop insurance program to fruits and vegetables, which are grown on many Western New York farms.

That means farmers who grow those products, as well as Christmas trees and nuts and other “specialty” products, will be able to get insured against the devastating losses they’ve suffered in the past because of harsh winter weather and drenching summer storms.

In addition, the bill includes a Schumer provision to boost U.S. production of maple syrup, as well as programs to promote U.S. crops overseas and at domestic farmers’ markets.

“This bill is really an economic development program for rural New York,” Norton said.

Both Schumer and Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, said the bill will allow farmers to make long-term plans and investments – which they could not do in recent years as Congress fumbled from one short-term Farm Bill extension to the next.

“The bill contains many benefits for agriculture in our region and cares for the needs of local farmers,” Reed said.

There’s disagreement, though, about how beneficial the bill is for upstate New York’s dairy farmers.

The measure ends Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) payments, which the federal government gave to farmers when milk prices – which are notoriously volatile – fell to a level that could endanger a farm’s financial future.

In place of the MILC program, the new Farm Bill creates a dairy price insurance program that will offer cheap protection from price swings for farmers with fewer than 200 cows. Bigger farms will pay higher rates.

Schumer said the dairy insurance provision is especially important in New York, where the average dairy farm has just 120 cows.

But Gillibrand warned that the insurance still could be too expensive for many small dairy farms. “It is not an ideal dairy deal,” she said.

The bill is likely to draw opposition both from liberals opposed to the food stamp cuts and conservatives who wanted deeper cuts both to food stamps and farm programs. That means passage depends on lawmakers more at the middle of the political spectrum, Collins said.

Collins said he was unhappy with provisions of the bill involving sugar and catfish – a complaint that hints at how broad-ranging the bill is. But those unwelcome provisions aren’t enough to stop him from supporting the bill.

“I suppose the sign it’s a good bipartisan bill is that there’s something in it that pretty much everybody doesn’t like,” Collins said.