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New York is first stop for Farm Bill hearings

New York farmers are the first to weigh in on the next federal Farm Bill.

They met last week with members of the House Committee on Agriculture during a field hearing in Saranac Lake, which was attended by farmers from all over the state.

“New York is a fitting place to kick off these hearings because of the variety of food produced here,” said committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla. “New York farmers produce a wide range of specialty crops that generate $1.34 billion annually and make up one-third of the state’s total agriculture receipts.”

He noted New York ranks second in apple production, third for wine and grape juice, and is among the top dairy and vegetable producing states in the country.

The main concerns of Scott Osborn, Penn Yan farmer and owner of Fox Run Vineyards, that he would like addressed in the new Farm Bill are crop insurance, research and market-access programs. He testified crop insurance for grape growers is a big issue on the East Coast and although it has improved since the 2008 Farm Bill, there are still a number of problems that need to be addressed.

Osborn, president of the New York Wine Industry Association, said grape growers could use insurance on new plantings because their installation costs are extreme.

As an example, he said it costs about $18,000 an acre to plant grapes that need to be farmed at about $4,000 more per acre during the four years it takes until the first harvest, bringing the per-acre investment cost to about $30,000. He said the investment can grow to as high as $50,000 if an under-performing variety is replaced with a more profitable variety, but that farmers have no way of recouping that investment if something environmental damages the vines.

Osborn would like to see the premium subsidy continue, the $30 harvest deduction removed and the per-ton price paid on a claim be based on a five-year average, instead of 10 years, on either the contracted price or a regional average to reflect real time market value.

He said he also thinks the Risk Management Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture need to better educate their employees in other states with an emerging grape-and-wine industry so they can be more helpful.

In addition, Osborn would like to see the specialty crop title, added in 2008, continue because he said the Northeast consists mostly of specialty crop producers.

“The farm bill should continue to include export assistance programs such as the Market Access Program, which allows farmers to be competitive in a global market,” Osborn testified. “Both the New York Wine and Grape Foundation and Welch’s grape juice have receive MAP funding in recent years and this allows our wines and juice products from New York to expand current markets and explore new opportunities. Driving demand for our grape products directly helps farmers become more profitable.”

The field hearing, the first of four nationwide, was at the North Country Community College, Sparks Athletic Complex. It is to gather input as Congress, which generally passes a new farm bill every four or five years, develops the 2012 Farm Bill which USDA Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack has said should include a strong safety net, commitment to conservation, focus on market development, and renew rural America by producing products for the country and exportation that will help create American jobs.

Jeremy Verratti, a fourth-generation dairy farmer from Gasport, Niagara County, testified the farm policies that guide the formation of the next Farm Bill will have a major impact on sustaining family farms like his which receive their main source of income from milking cows.

He and other dairy farmers spoke in favor of the Dairy Security Act (H.R. 3062), which would establish a dairy producer margin protection program, a market stabilization program and reform the federal milk marketing order system. The provisions are designed to help avoid another farm crisis like the one in 2009 when milk prices dropped, but the cost to produce it skyrocketed, causing financial hardships to the nation’s dairy farmers.

Verratti said a key part is the focus on the margin between milk prices and input costs such as feed.

“Margin insurance that is promoted and partially subsidized by the federal government would be very helpful in weathering the bumps in the road that disrupt normal market pricing,” he said. “In fact sometimes, as in 2009, these ‘bumps’ are more like a boulder in the field you’re plowing, a small seismic share, or even a widespread earthquake that threatens the foundation of entire industry.”

Lucas said field hearings are an invaluable part of the Farm Bill process, providing lawmakers an opportunity to hear from a variety of producers.

“Their input will help us craft a strong Farm Bill that serves all of American agriculture,” he said, noting the field hearings were started two years ago by Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat and ranking member of the Agriculture Committee.

The main focus of the New York hearing was on specialty crops and dairy producers. Lucas said dairy reform is of particular importance after the recent decline in prices, coupled with rising costs, demonstrated the need to modernize the industry’s safety net.

The hearings will continue March 23, in Galesburg, Ill.; March 30, in State University, Ariz.; and April 20, in Dodge City, Kan.

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