NY: Former Georgia Governor George "Sonny" Perdue arrives at Trump Tower for meeting with President-elect

Food aid program should stay linked to farm bill: USDA’s Perdue

December 8, 2017 Teaganne Finn  & Gail Ballantyne

This analysis was first available to Bloomberg Government subscribers

The Department of Agriculture’s main food and nutrition assistance program should remain linked to the farm bill when the latter comes up before Congress in 2018, despite past efforts to decouple the two, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told Bloomberg Government.

Perdue said he does not see momentum for separating the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from the farm bill because the alliance between SNAP advocates and farm supporters was still holding together. In 2014, when farm programs were last reauthorized, some members of the House Republican conference pushed to separate the two issues, in hopes of making cutbacks in SNAP.

“I don’t see a lot of interest in calling that question right now,” said Perdue in a Dec. 7 interview at the Agriculture Department. “I believe the administration is sending sufficient signals it will deal comprehensively with overall welfare issues in a comprehensive method that lessens the incentives to do it in the farm bill.”

SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, provides benefits to low-income households on electronic benefit transfer cards. The more than $70 billion program was authorized by the 2014 farm bill, which is set to expire by the end of the 2018 fiscal year.

This will be Perdue’s first farm bill as secretary since being appointed by President Donald Trump in April. He said he looks forward to working collaboratively with Congress by providing advice and counsel on big issues.

‘Evolutionary’ Farm Bill

Perdue said he would like to see a farm bill enacted into law by the summer of 2018 so “we can get all of our people in the field trained up on what the provisions are and implement that by the end of the year.”

He predicted the legislation would go through Congress pretty quickly because the 2018 farm bill will be more evolutionary than the sweeping 2014 bill. He said there aren’t major changes to make in payment schemes, but there would be marginal tweaks and fixes to issues with cotton and dairy programs that didn’t fare well in the 2014 legislation.

Additionally, specialty crops will be getting some assistance and could be added as commodity crops under crop insurance, he said. However, Perdue said, “we need to make sure there is a safety net for food security at the right level” but not so high that it encourages farmers to make decisions based on farm programs instead of the market.

There will be tweaks to the SNAP program, particularly dealing with adults without disabilities and/or dependents, said Perdue. “That comes as no surprise.”

The USDA said on Dec. 5 that it would give states “greater flexibility” over how they administer SNAP and Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) Administrator Brandon Lipps sent a letter to state human services officials Nov. 30 saying the “flexibilities” would address self-sufficiency and customer service.

Looking ahead to the 2018 farm bill, Perdue said there will probably be an effort “to make sure we use our nutrition programs for the people who need it, not the people who have made it a lifestyle” and to expect more incentives for work requirements in nutrition programs.

“We have able bodied adults, both men and women, without dependents who are using this,” said Perdue. “I don’t believe it’s the ultimate purpose.”

Citrus Recovery Efforts

Perdue also said he would be supportive of lawmakers deciding whether to make citrus farmers eligible for disaster payments in the wake of hurricanes that hit growing regions earlier in the year.

“People in the citrus industry feel like [safety net programs] have been insufficient, but it’s up to Congress whether they look at direct disaster payments or not,” said Perdue.

Orange growers were hurrying to harvest their crops as Hurricane Irma barreled toward Florida in August and September, threatening to devastate the nation’s largest citrus-producing state. The USDA estimated fruit losses up to 100 percent in some areas, along with the increased spread of citrus greening, a bacterial disease.

“Congress has been somewhat loath to do direct disaster payments since the farm bill came out because safety nets were there to take that up,” said Perdue.

The White House sent Congress a request for an additional $44 billion in disaster relief aid on Nov. 17, but the request was not added to the House’s continuing resolution to keep the government funded. The USDA requested $1 billion for emergency agriculture assistance. Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) grilled USDA officials about the lack of assistance to Florida citrus growers during a hearing Nov 29.

“We have a crop insurance problem and that needs to be fixed in the next farm bill, but that doesn’t help us now,” said Rooney during the hearing.

Because citrus isn’t considered a large commodity crop, farmers have minimal crop insurance coverage. As for citrus greening, producers only receive catastrophic coverage through the USDA Risk Management Agency. Although many growers have the coverage, it is only applicable if the loss is enormous.

Perdue said he expected disaster recovery for citrus and cotton farmers will take a full year, but he was hopeful by fall of 2018 “people would long forget the hurricanes.”

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