WASHINGTON — Southern peanut growers stand in the way of a massive new farm bill that seeks to cut billions of dollars from the federal subsidy system.
Farmers in North Carolina, Georgia and other peanut-growing states charge they’ve been left out of a Senate proposal skewed in favor of Midwest corn and wheat growers.
The current system of direct cash payments to farmers would be abolished under the proposal and replaced by a variety of new crop insurance options.
Though much of the debate is expected to center on cuts to the national food stamps program, Southern farmers are more likely to hamper efforts to pass the bill before current legislation expires in September.
Farmers say they know subsidies will get cut, but they want to keep parts of the current protections against loss, saying a Senate farm bill doesn’t take into account both the peanut pricing system and the long-term investments that peanut farmers make in their crop.
Jerry Hamill has been farming peanuts for 40 years in Enfield, N.C., about an hour east of Raleigh. He saves his best 360 acres of farmland for his prize-winning nuts.
Peanut trophies on top of the 68-year-old farmer’s cabinet underscores his skills, but he still worries about hurricanes and extreme weather that can destroy production.
“There are so many uncertainties in peanut farming,” Hamill said. “It’s a risky game. It’s a risky livelihood. It takes a lot of money to get in it. And it takes a lot of hard work, and luck, to stay in it.”
Armond Morris has been farming peanuts in Irwin County, Ga., for 45 years. Last month he testified before Congress, saying that farmers understand the country’s fiscal crisis and want to do their fair share but that the bill fails to account for peanut farmers’ specialized structure and equipment needs.
“The debate today is not whether farmers will take significant cuts in farm programs. We know this will take place,” he told members of Congress. “The debate today in Congress is whether we will have a farm bill that works for one or two regions of the country and one or two crops, or a national farm bill that works for all regions of the country and all crops.”
With the government facing massive deficits, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee presented a bipartisan farm bill that would cut $24 billion in spending in the next 10 years.
The bill also seeks to consolidate duplicative programs and crack down on food assistance abuse. The committee chairwoman, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., says the bill closes loopholes and would put a stop to farmers getting paid for acres that are not planted and others who are no longer farming.
“This is not your father’s farm bill,” she said.
The White House supports passage of the bill, but emphasized that President Obama wants more cuts from farm programs. The 2013 Obama budget calls for $32 billion in cuts to farm programs.
In North Carolina, direct farm payments totaled $65 million in 2010, according to an Environmental Working Group database. North Carolina, the fourth-largest peanut producer, harvested 89,000 acres of peanuts in 2010, according to N.C. State University. The majority is grown in the state’s northeast, around Pitt, Edgecombe and Halifax counties.
The state specializes in “ballpark” or Virginia-style peanuts. Georgia, the largest producer of peanuts, supplies the majority of peanuts for peanut butter and candy.
On Thursday, the Senate moved forward with the bill. The House has its own version, and some Southern senators feel the bill has a long way to go to address Southern concerns.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said Thursday that the bill wrongly “seeks to place a one-size-fits-all on every region of the country.” And Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said the bill would shift resources to corn and wheat farmers in the Midwest, while leaving peanut and rice farmers in the South out of the mix.
“If the Southeast is not on board, there is no way you get a farm bill through the Congress of the United States,” Burr said.
The key provision of the bill is a new insurance program known as Agriculture Risk Coverage, which compensates farmers for shallow, or small, losses in revenues measured over a five-year average.
Supporters say the program ensures coverage payouts are based on the market and not on numbers invented by government officials.
But peanut farmers say the program would lock in current low-market prices for peanuts in recent years and doesn’t take into account the high costs of specialty equipment.
“Our risk coverage is way below the cost of production,” said Robert Sutter, the chief executive officer of the North Carolina Peanut Growers Association. “If you just decide, ‘Well, I’m not going to plant this year,’ the banker wants his payment.”
Unlike corn and wheat, which are traded on the stock market, making it easier to establish prices and insure, peanuts are not traded on an exchange and therefore are more vulnerable to price swings.
The University of Georgia’s National Center for Peanut Competitiveness applied the proposal’s measures to 22 peanut farms across the South and found that it wouldn’t provide the same protection as it would for corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest.
The peanut industry is pushing for modified counter-cyclical payments, another farm subsidy which is issued when crop prices drop below a certain level.
Peanut farmers say they would rather make their living off the marketplace, but Northampton County, N.C., grower David Grant said they know how quickly “high prices can go to heck in a handbasket.”
“American farmers are willing to do their part,” he said. “It’s just hard to know what is your part and what is you doing more than everyone else is doing.”