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US Sen. Mark Begich sponsors Alaska-friendly amendments to farm bill

Amanda Coyne
Loren Holmes photo

The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed the farm bill -- officiallly titled the Agriculture, Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 -- by a vote of 64 to 35. Sen. Mark Begich supported the bill. Sen. Lisa Murkowski did not, even though it contains provisions that could help Alaska’s fisherman and its rural communities.

Murkowski said she voted against it because it was bloated. “There are new subsidies for maple syrup, a new payout for “gleaners” who find food for food banks, and an increase in the size of ‘rural’ communities that qualify for development grants from 20,000 to 50,000. I don’t consider Juneau or Fairbanks ‘rural,’” she said.

Begich, on the other hand, said the bill is estimated to save $23 billion over the next 10 years. He said that it will “reform the country’s agriculture programs, fund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (previously known as food stamps), cut many direct farm subsidies, and create jobs in rural America.”

Begich co-sponsored several amendments in the bill. One of those amendments will allow fisherman to apply for disaster loans under the emergency disaster loan program in the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Various federal and state relief programs are open to fisherman who have a bad year due to weather or poor stocks, but they have not been able to qualify, as farms do, for USDA relief.

Begich said that the amendment “puts our fishermen on a level playing field with other farmers who suffer losses from disasters and climate fluctuations.”

Alaska’s fisherman didn’t get all that they wanted. For years, they’ve been pushing to allow fisherman to qualify for farm loans, but that has yet to happen.

Bruce Schactler, marketing director for United Fisherman of Alaska, the state's largest commercial fishing organization said however that allowing fisherman into the disaster program “is a great start. We’re very appreciative of this type of help,” he said.

Begich along with Sen. John McCain wanted to offer another amendment that would have required the disclosure of the names of those who receive crop insurance subsidy recipients along with the amount of money they received. As it stands, only those names, like that of failed senate candidate Joe Miller, who receive direct farm subsidies are released. However, farmers also get billions of dollars in such crop subsidy insurance subsidies. Who gets them and why is not known.

It’ll stay that way unless the House can work some magic and stave off big agribusiness, which fought against the provision and won with the Senate leadership.

Below are other Alaska-related provisions Begich says are in the bill:

Labeling of genetically engineered food, including “Frankenfish” -- Consumers have a right to know what they are eating.  Many states, including Alaska, have passed laws requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods but are unable to enforce them without companion federal legislation. But this amendment, co-sponsored by Begich, failed to pass the full Senate.

Geographically Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program -- This program helps reimburse Alaska and Hawaii farmers and producers for the millions of dollars in transportation costs associated with moving supplies and finished products to and from market.  Begich also voted to protect funding for farmer’s markets and locally-grown food programs.

Regional Equity Program – This program assures Alaska receives its fair share of funding from conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.  Conservation programs help protect soil and water resources and help extend the growing season through the use of high tunnels, also known as Hoop Houses

Rural Broadband Assistance – Begich is working with his colleagues to expand and improve rural telecommunications by fighting off amendments attempting to cut funding from the Rural Utilities Service.  Begich also voted against Sen. Mark Warner’s, D-Va., rural broadband expansion amendment because it did not account for Alaska’s unique communications challenges. He has secured pledges to work on the issue further when the final Farm Bill is negotiated with the U.S. House.

Contact Amanda Coyne at Amanda@alaskadispatch.com