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Farm Bill Rejection Sparks Relief, Concern, in Maine
06/21/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives rejected a farm bill that sets agriculture and food assistance policy for the next five years. That has implications for Maine, which not only has its share of farmers, but also a quarter-of-a-million people who receive food stamps. As the bill lies in limbo in Congress, Maine food pantry operators and dairy farmers are crossing their fingers that lawmakers can create - and pass - a better bill. Patty Wight reports.

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The bill was rejected by both Democrats and Republicans, mostly over one overriding issue: $2 billion in annual cuts to nutrition programs - that is, food stamps. For many Republicans, that slice was too small. For Democrats, like Maine 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, the slice was too big.

"It isn't now a farm bill that reflects the national needs of this country," Pingree says. "And, unfortunately, that's a challenge - this is a really important program that has everything from school lunch funding to housing assistance. This is a vital piece of legislation."

Pingree says beyond the steep cuts to the food assistance program, conservative Republicans had rejected proposed amendments that would have provided more support to small farmers and local food access. "I would say in the last week or two, the process was just breaking down on every front," she says.

The fact that it didn't pass has Mark Swann of the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland breathing a sigh of relief. Preble Street operates food kitchens and pantries.

"Maine is, unfortunately, a poor state," Swann says. "We've seen significant increases at food pantries and soup kitchens. You know, we're serving 1,200 meals a day at our soup kitchens here in Portland. And all over the state, pantries and kitchens are just flooded. So, you know, there's a lot at stake here."

"There are never enough food donations, enough financial donations, to meet the entire need," says Clara McConnell Whitney, a spokesperson for the Auburn-based Good Shepherd Food Bank, which provides hunger assistance throughout Maine. "So if additional people are going to be in need of assistance, we'll, of course, do everything we can to meet that. But we're already stretched thin, so it's going to be very difficult."

Maine's other U.S. representative, 2nd District Democrat Mike Michaud, also voted against the farm bill. In a statement, Michaud says he couldn?t vote for the bill in good conscience because it made devastating cuts to nutrition programs and did nothing to address the challenges Maine?s dairy farmers are facing.

Julie-Marie Bickford of the Maine Dairy Industry Association says she has mixed feelings about the bill's rejection. "For Maine farmers, what it just drives home for us is two things: One is that we are so grateful that the state has taken some efforts to help put some safety nets under our farmers."

Two, Bickford says: The Maine Dairy Association is just about ready to propose an alternative, more stable, milk pricing system to the USDA that's not connected to the farm bill. Bickford says at the very least, she'd like the U.S. farm bill to recognize that the current pricing system is not working, and to reflect the regional differences of milk production.

"Because producing milk in Maine is a whole lot different in cost, in production methods, and all of that, than producing milk in New Mexico or Idaho or California, you know, or Wisconsin."

Last year, the farm bill expired when Congress couldn't reach an agreement on a new version. Lawmakers passed an extension of the 2008 bill to buy time to work on it this year. Rep. Chellie Pingree says she's hopeful this time around they'll pass a five-year bill. But for now, it's back to the drawing board.


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