Federal spending measure includes investments for farmers, households

Funding for loss recovery, kids’ summer food program

From left, U.S. Rep. Steve Womack and U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, all R-Ark., are shown in undated file photos. (Left and center, courtesy photos; right, AP/Alex Brandon)
From left, U.S. Rep. Steve Womack and U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, all R-Ark., are shown in undated file photos. (Left and center, courtesy photos; right, AP/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON -- The $1.7 trillion spending measure recently approved by federal lawmakers includes language addressing the agricultural and nutritional needs of rural communities, including financial resources for farmers and improvements to summer food programs.

Congress passed the omnibus spending package last week as lawmakers faced a government shutdown. Three Arkansas legislators -- Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, as well as Rep. Steve Womack -- supported the legislation. President Joe Biden signed a short-term continuing resolution last week to fund the government through Friday with the expectation he will sign the "omnibus."

The legislation is a combination of 12 appropriations measures and several pieces of legislation. Legislators advocated for policy concerns, including Boozman, who serves as the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

"Agriculture is such that it's 25% of our state's economy. You go outside of any town of any size, it's probably 85 or 90%," Boozman, R-Rogers, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week. "It's really important that we do a good job in helping in every way that we can."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will have around $3.7 billion to help farmers recoup losses from natural disasters and weather patterns hindering production this year. Ranchers will have access to $494.5 million for similar purposes.

The measure provides $250 million in one-time payments to American rice producers who planted rice in 2022. The Department of Agriculture will oversee the program.

The funding follows an increase in fertilizer prices and input costs affecting commodities. Researchers with Texas A&M University found cost changes had the largest per-acre impact on rice farms, with two-thirds of rice farms facing losses this year.

Boozman emphasized the importance of such funding as it relates to Arkansas. According to the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, Arkansas-produced rice accounted for 47.5% of the nation's rice production in 2021.

"It's not only the production of rice, but then you have the mills throughout Arkansas that employ a lot of people," he said.

Dow Brantley, the Arkansas Rice Council president and board member of the USA Rice Federation and USA Rice Farmers, said rice was not part of the commodity assistance programs stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

"Rice was getting along and we understood, but as time has rolled on, rice prices -- the commodity price here in the U.S. -- hasn't changed, hasn't gone up like other commodities have," he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Wednesday.

"This inflationary time that we're in was really strangling the U.S. rice industry in a big way, and that's where we began to explore some ideas for assistance and some help."

Jarrod Yates, the Arkansas Farm Bureau's director of public affairs and government relations, said farmers across the country have dealt with operational changes attributed to the pandemic and turbulent weather, but rice farmers faced an additional hurdle with prices.

"That type of help was invaluable," he said of the new program.

Brantley, who operates a Lonoke County farm, said farmers will likely use the funds for "getting back to even" and covering loan payments and outstanding invoices.

"Does it make us whole? No," he said. "Does it get us along into the next year? You bet, and I think that's the goal of this program or any program that we've participated in."

The Department of Agriculture will additionally maintain $100 million in pandemic assistance payments to cotton merchandisers who had financial losses because of pandemic-related disruptions. Merchants who bought or marketed cotton would qualify for these payments.

The spending measure increases federal investments from current levels. It boosts funding for the Agricultural Research Service by $11 million and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture by $64 million.

"To plus up funding on the ag research side is welcome news," Yates said.

Yates also said money was allocated for the Farm Service Agency, the Agriculture Department division responsible for assisting farmers and ranchers with services and programs. The Farm Service Agency will have at least $15 million for hiring new employees and filing vacancies at existing offices.

"These farmers need to have that one-on-one access and face-to-face interaction with folks that administer these programs to help apply for these beginning farmer loans or whatever it may be," he said.

"Even though we have some programs that might be beneficial to ag and farmers, accessing those programs has been tough and a challenge because of the lack of staffing or issues in the offices with FSA."

The spending measure also updates the summer food program for low-income families. Organizations offering summer meals could provide home delivery and takeout options rather than requiring participants to eat meals at service locations.

"What we have is a situation where during the school year, individuals that are in need of help in regard to free lunches, they are taken care of," Boozman said. "You come to the summer, and then you have this gap in the summer, and there's a lot of individuals who fall through the cracks."

Families would additionally be eligible for a new Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer program, in which families would receive $40 per child each month during the summer for groceries. The program will begin in the summer of 2024.

"What we've found is that where you have summer EBT, you have about a 30% less amount of child hunger," Boozman said. "These things have been measured and found very effective, so what we wanted to do was to make it such that they would be able to go on."

The provisions are similar to legislation introduced by Boozman in June 2021. The Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act received bipartisan support, but the Senate never voted on the proposal.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. -- chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee -- said the changes will improve food access for 29 million children. According to a September report from the Department of Agriculture, 15% of Arkansas households had difficulty during 2021 in ensuring residents had enough food.

Lisa Davis, senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry campaign at Share Our Strength -- a nonprofit organization focused on hunger and poverty -- celebrated the inclusion of these provisions. She said last week in a news release these programs are successful in curbing childhood hunger.

"When the covid-19 pandemic threatened to skyrocket childhood hunger rates, Congress acted swiftly to implement temporary versions of these policies that not only forestalled the worst impacts of the crisis, but helped to dramatically reduce the number of kids living with hunger," she said.

The spending legislation's other provisions included a ban of the social media platform TikTok on certain government devices and changes to Congress' handling of presidential elections. Arkansas lawmakers additionally secured $157.8 million for various projects in the state, including infrastructure upgrades and improvements to existing facilities, such as a new access road at Northwest Arkansas National Airport.

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