GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Farmers told U.S. Sen. Max Baucus on Wednesday that planned cuts to the farm bill could make the crop insurance safety net too expensive.
Baucus held a round-table discussion with farmers and agricultural groups Wednesday. The six-term Democrat said that the measure is a top priority for him before he retires next year.
Farm groups told Baucus that they are most concerned about the way cost-saving cuts to farm programs could make crop insurance harder to get. They said the program is especially critical for new farmers trying to get loans, but it is important to almost all grain farmers in the state and helps bring stability to an agriculture industry that fuels the state's economy.
The House and Senate are both working on versions of the farm bill that aim to cut spending. The $100 billion-a-year farm bill covers a wide variety of programs that also extend to forestry and payments to help low-income residents buy food.
The Senate has reduced the subsidies given to farmers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000 to buy crop insurance. But Montana farmers say that could increase the cost of crop insurance by as much as a third for them because many of those wealthy farmers are in low risk areas in other parts of the country that help reduce the cost of the insurance for everyone else.
Other programs, such as direct payments to farmers, are also being reduced.
"That is going to be our safety net now, that crop insurance. And it has to be affordable," said Erik Somerfeld, a Power farmer with the Montana Farmers Union. "Making sure that crop insurance stays affordable is very important."
Baucus said during the meeting that he hopes to be on the critical conference committee that could hash out partisan differences between House and Senate versions of the bill later this summer. The Democrat said he could use that position to implement changes sought by the Montana farmers.
Baucus said the five-year measure will be the last farm bill he works on.
"We need to make sure we get it right," Baucus said.
One big partisan sticking point remains in the federal food stamp program. House Republicans are eying a much bigger cut to that program than Senate Democrats.
Baucus said it will be important to protect that program from deep cuts, too. He said that is the portion of the farm bill favored by senators from non-farm states — and their support will be needed for the entire package.
And he pointed out that one out of eight Montanans gets assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Those payments are spent at Montana stores and put millions into the state's economy, he said.
"We have to remind ourselves that we are all in this together America," Baucus said. "If you start pulling the string it starts to unravel, and everyone gets hurt."