While a conference committee in Congress works out a compromise for a new Farm Bill, several organizations here in Vermont are benefiting from a small slice of the existing Farm Bill pie.
Vermont's congressional delegation on Thursday announced $350,000 in grants awarded to four organizations across the state to improve housing conditions for limited income rural residents. The grants are part of the $3.8 million released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development's Housing Preservation Grant program. Vermont's allocation of nearly 9 percent of the total grant awards makes it the second largest recipient in the country.
The grant recipients are: $100,000 to the Vermont Center for Independent Living for repair and code compliance of very low income homes; $50,000 to the Southeastern Vermont Community Action Program to resolve serious health and safety issues and weatherization; $100,000 to Rural Edge for repair and compliance to housing standards; and $100,000 to the Northeast Employment and Training Organization for repair, weatherization and compliance to housing standards.
"These lifeline investments in housing improvements will make lives and communities better," U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said in a joint statement.
The Congressmen noted that most of the grants were designated to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont -- Caledonia, Essex and Orleans counties -- as a Rural Economic Area Partnership Zone, a USDA Rural Development designation recognizing the unique rural nature of a region.
In the 2013 Senate Farm Bill, Leahy fought to continue the REAP Zone authorization that has been so successful in establishing collaborative and citizen-led efforts to enhance economic development. As the senior most member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a conferee in the 2013 Farm Bill conference, Leahy says he will continue to fight for a balanced Farm Bill that preserves the REAP Zone authorization.
As we noted above, however, REAP Zone authorization and the Housing Preservation Grant Program are only a small part of the Farm Bill. The biggest challenge the conference committee faces is the issue of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, which account for the bulk of spending in the $500 billion bill.
The Senate wants $4 billion cut from the program while the House is proposing a $40 billion cut.
Roughly one in seven Americans receive food stamps to assist in purchasing basic foodstuffs. Enrollment has doubled since 2004 and the cost of the program has nearly tripled. Republicans such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor say the program is an unaffordable burden while defenders say the high enrollment is a sign of a weak economic recovery, according to a Reuters report.
A huge cut to the food stamp program, as the House is proposing, would be devastating to those millions of Americans who rely on it to buy food for their families. Failure to pass any Farm Bill at all, however, would have even broader ramifications.
Without a new law, U.S. farm policy will be dictated by an underlying 1938 permanent law that would bring back the concept of "price parity" which led to sharply higher guaranteed crop prices, Barry Flinchbaugh, a Kansas State University agricultural economist, told Reuters. That could lead to higher food prices, while at the same time cutting the food stamp program that helps lower-income Americans pay for groceries.
"Consumers are the biggest losers without a farm bill," Flinchbaugh said.
Farmers who rely on subsidies and crop support rates to keep their farms financially viable are also eagerly awaiting a successful outcome of the conference committee.
The announcement of the USDA's Housing Preservation Grants provides just one more example of how valuable the Farm Bill is and how it affects the lives and livelihood of so many Americans across the country.
"USDA's Housing Preservation Grant Program helps ensure Vermonters have access to safe and affordable homes, a bedrock of community and economic development that helps our rural economies thrive," said USDA Rural Development State Director Ted Brady said in a statement.
As he said, these funds are another reason why Congress must get a comprehensive Food, Farm and Jobs Bill passed as soon as possible.