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Food stamps review, crop insurance, and California reserves

Greetings on Feb 26,

The Ag Insider contains original reporting as well as a survey of top news on food, agriculture and the environment. Emails are welcome at chuck@thefern.org. I am on Twitter @chuckabbott1. If you received this briefing from a friend and wish to receive it directly, you can subscribe for free by clicking this link.

"If the office of the future features vegetable gardens, then the future is now," says TakePart, a digital magazine. It says on-site gardens are a way for businesses to provide healthier food for employees while providing airy and attractive work areas that allow workers to mingle and collaborate.

Food stamps fail to meet changing needs, says Conaway

The premiere U.S. antihunger program has failed to adjust to changing needs, said Agriculture Committee chairman Michael Conaway, in opening "without preconceived notions" a top-to-bottom review of the food stamp program. Conaway said he is committed to "strengthening the program to serve as a tool to help individuals move up the economic ladder." Indiana Republican Jackie Walorski, who chairs the nutrition subcommittee, said the review could take a couple of years.

"While the economy has changed and other welfare programs have adjusted to meet changing needs, it does not appear that SNAP has," said Conaway. Weak economic growth "has brought in a new group of healthy, working-age recipients who in the past had not used SNAP (food stamps)," he said, before noting with favor how welfare programs have begun to provide additional services, such as transportation and child care, to help people move into work.

"The role of the program has to change," said University of Maryland professor Douglas Besharov, who said food stamps, while viewed as a hunger prevention program, actually was the primary U.S. income-support program. Besharov said more stringent work requirements were needed and called for more coordination of food stamps, welfare, Supplemental Security Income, and disability programs to eliminate disincentives to work. "A possible solution is to combine - or at least align - the administration of these program and to add what the Europeans call 'labor activation' (akin to job search requirements) to all recipients of government assistance," said Besharov.

High enrollment in food stamps is a reflection of poor economic performance and erosion of wages, said Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank. As far as work requirements under food stamps, "for childless adults, they are the most stringent of any federal program" - three months of benefits in a three-year period unless there is a waiver because of high unemployment. Since welfare reform, food stamps has become "principally a work support program," he said. In 2013, 52 percent of participating households with children were employed and only 11 percent relied wholly on welfare. Greenstein said research indicated food stamps' "overall impact on work to be small."

Collin Peterson, the Democratic leader on the committee, said, "I don't think we should do anything" to the food stamp program, which was renewed in the 2014 farm law. He said Republican leaders "over-played their hand" by proposing big cuts during the farm bill debate and lost an opportunity for reform. Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern said two-thirds of food stamp recipients are children, disabled or elderly. "I don't know how tougher work requirements help them."

Georgia Republican Rick Allen said food stamps were essential to assure people get enough to eat but, "Somehow, it has to prime the pump and not be the pump." Florida Republican Ted Yoho said, "Success should be measured by retiring a program" and speculated on reducing food stamps, now 80 percent of USDA spending, to 30 percent.

A top goal for Republican conservatives during the drafting of the farm bill was to set tougher work requirements and to tighten eligibility standards for food stamps. Democrats insisted successfully that cuts be limited to closing a loophole on utility costs.

The 2014 farm law allotted $200 million for 10 pilot projects to find better ways to assist food stamp recipients in finding work. A tiny amount of food stamp funds are earmarked at present for employment and training.

At latest count, 46.3 million people received food stamps with an average benefit of $127.53 a month. Enrollment peaked at 47.8 million people in December 2012. The program cost a record $80 billion in fiscal 2013. Annual costs more than doubled in the wake of the 2008/09 recession and enrollment climbed by 20 million people. Enrollment and costs are forecast to decline in coming years.
    --Reporting by Chuck Abbott

Walorski's subcommittee is scheduled to meet this afternoon to continue the review of food stamps. For details, including witnesses, click here.

To read the written statements of Conaway, Besharov and Greenstein or to watch a video of Wednesday's hearing, click here.

House ag-funding leader opposes crop insurance cuts

The chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture said he opposes the administration proposal for a 17 percent cut in crop insurance funding. Farm income is projected to fall this year, said chairman Robert Aderholt of Alabama, and cuts in crop insurance would make it harder for farmers to secure operating loans from bankers. "I join my fellow colleague Mike Conaway, who is the Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, in requesting that we not adversely change the rules of the farm bill. And I certainly do not want to do so through the appropriations process," said Aderhold in a statement at a hearing on the USDA budget.

The White House proposed a lower premium subsidy for revenue policies that reflect harvest prices and to adjust payment rates on claims for prevented planting. "The proposals represent a balanced approach to reducing the cost of the program while maintaining a strong safety net to protect producers from natural disasters and price fluctuations," said USDA's budget summary. The government pays 63 cents of each $1 of crop insurance premiums. The program is forecast to cost nearly $9 billion a year.

California's big gambit to rebuild its fisheries

Over the past 15 years, California 'has upended nearly every aspect of its fisheries management" to create 124 marine protected areas covering 850 square miles, more than 16 percent of its ocean holdings, where fishing is banned or severely curtailed, writes avid angler and author Paul Greenberg in California Sunday magazine. "By creating an interconnected stretch of no-fishing and restricted-fishing areas up and down the coast, scientists and conservationists theorize they can weave back together the elements of an ecosystem that two centuries of exploitation has blown apart." Greenberg went scuba diving in Monterey Bay, joined scientists in fish censuses and went sport fishing to see if the string of protected areas is rebuilding the fishery.

Research biologist Jean Caselle UC-Santa Barbara says fish populations are rising inside and outside of reserves near the Channel Islands, a welcome trend considering commercial fishing is now crowded into a smaller area by the reserves, writes Greenberg. Fisheries science professor Ray Hilborn of U-Washington says there is no evidence the protected areas are the reason. He says the scientific guidelines behind the protected areas are not sufficiently rigorous. Considering the long lives of fish sheltered by the reserves, "it may be a long time until we know the extent to which reserves populate other fishing grounds," says Greenberg. The story was developed in partnership with FERN.

Land taxes could rise in Kansas to reduce state deficit

A bill in the Republican-controlled Kansas state Senate would change the state's method for assessing farmland value and could sharply increase property taxes for farmers and ranchers, says the Scott County Record, which says there could be "a huge shift in the property tax burden." The newspaper, based in Scott City, cited a preliminary state estimate that land values could increase by 473 percent under SB 178. The bill is opposed by an array of farm groups. “Rural Kansas has become a minority at the statehouse and Senate Bill 178 is a blatant attempt to exploit that fact," said the Kansas Farmers Union. State Rep Don Hineman said the bill is an attempt to resolve the state's budget deficit by putting an additional load on one sector.

The change in assessment methods for ag land is among a number of bills that seek to close the budgetary hole, says a newsletter that monitors the Legislature. Also proposed are a 5-cent increase in fuel taxes, higher cigarette and liquor taxes, elimination of tax breaks for residential utilities, pass-through income and on purchase of farm machinery. The legislative session is half-over so action on revenue measures is expected to heat up.

Ag giants Australia and United States eye quinoa

Two of the world's leading grain exporters "are racing to become mass producers" of gluten-free quinoa, native to South America and the world's newest super food, says Reuters. Important for Australia is that quinoa flourishes in harsh climates such as its home territory in the Andes. Consumer demand for quinoa is high and so are prices for the high-protein grain. Australian plant breeders say they are three years away from a strain that will produce good yields and quality in a hot climate. U.S. growers also are working on varieties that will grow at lower altitudes.

In Bolivia, the private Institute of External Trade plans to market a genetically unique and premium-priced "Quinoa Real" brand to differentiate its quinoa from competitors. A Peruvian grower of quinoa says she and her neighbors will use mechanized equipment to boost their production while getting it certified as organic to sell for a higher price, says Reuters.

FERN and Harper's published "The Quinoa Quarrel" last year, an examination of the intellectual property battle over the ancient seed and its impact on the Andean farmers who regard quinoa as their patrimony.

House, Senate bills would triple farm-to-school program

Companion bills in the House and Senate would triple the funding, to $15 million a year, for the farm-to-school grant program, which buys locally grown fresh food to help feed schoolchildren. The legislation was announced ahead of this year's reauthorization of child nutrition programs such as school lunch. House sponsors are Marcia Fudge, Ohio Democrat, and Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska Republican. Senate sponsors are Appropriations chairman Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat.

Fudge said the program was so popular that USDA was able to accept only 20 percent of the requests for funding.  The legislation would expand the program to include preschools, summer food service programs, and after-school programs.

For a fact sheet on the legislation, click here. For text of the bill, click here.

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