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Updated: 11/06/2013 08:00:03AM

Greening funds fight as hard as disease itself

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Bill Nelson still believes a citrus greening trust fund will be created by Congress sometime.

Figuring out when, however, is proving to be an elusive chore.

The Florida Senator told members of the Florida Citrus Commission on Oct. 25 in Bartow that work was beginning again this term on trying to find a compromise on a comprehensive national farm bill that would cover everything from food stamps, to citrus and even the lesser prairie chicken.

In fact, it’s the food stamp part of the debate that may prove to be the undoing to any deal between the two legislative bodies that would pour tens of million of dollars into ongoing research regarding greening, which the industry now believes may soon imperil Florida citrus.

Nelson and his Senate colleagues passed a farm bill last spring, but it never reconciled with the House version, and thus was never passed, much to Nelson’s chagrin.

“I never thought, first of all, that the House would not be able to pass a farm bill. Politics has gotten in the way of us being able to find a cure for greening,” Nelson said. “Getting a citrus research trust fund shouldn’t be that hard. In the old days, you’d explain it, and get it done. When you have something threatening the extinction of an entire industry, it shouldn’t be hard, but partisan politics got in the way. This is the era we live in.”

Although he sounded more optimistic last fall about the fund being created, Nelson said he remains confident that lawmakers will eventually approve the spending measure, which would earmark more than $100 million for greening research.

“I could not survive in this job if I were not an optimist,” he said.

Nelson said the five-year program would use money collected on tariffs paid by Brazilian juice importers.

“We’ve got the support of the Brazilians because they’ve got it in most of their groves as well,” Nelson added.

House and Senate negotiators began long-delayed public talks last Wednesday in hopes of striking a deal on a new farm bill by the end of the year amid worries that a bipartisan agreement may be impossible in the current political environment.

More than three dozen members of House and Senate agriculture committees gathered in an ornate House committee room to lament about years of political fighting that have prevented Congress from enacting broad farm legislation — which encompasses agriculture, energy and global trade and affects an estimated 16 million jobs and more than 40 million needy Americans.

“Let’s not take years to get it done,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said at the start of the hearing. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., called the gathering “refreshing” and said the process could eventually “demonstrate to colleagues in both chambers that we can truly govern together.”

The House and the Senate have passed separate farm bills that would eliminate direct subsidy payments to farmers, make changes to crop insurance and other commodity programs, provide disaster assistance to farmers and write new rules on food labeling. But the two chambers differ sharply on how much money the federal government should spend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps or SNAP.

The Democratic-run Senate passed a bipartisan measure in June that would cut about $4 billion in SNAP funding, mostly by making administrative changes. But the GOP-controlled House approved slashing almost $40 billion in food-stamp money over the next decade by rewriting eligibility rules for beneficiaries.

Negotiators have until Jan. 1 to reach a deal before some agricultural policies revert to laws passed in the 1930s and 1940s, a step that would cause the wholesale price of milk to double.

Some lawmakers and aides privately say that the farm bill, and its potential to save tens of billions of dollars, is likely to get merged into a broader spending plan that must be passed by Jan. 15 in order to keep the government open.

Once considered must-pass legislation, the farm bill’s clout has suffered in recent years amid the declining influence of rural America. But it remains one of the few opportunities for lawmakers to brag about their states’ agricultural prowess and to deliver on specific regional concerns.

In Florida, that’s largely citrus. Other states, though, have industries they are trying to help too.

“Minnesota is number one in turkeys. We’re looking forward to Thanksgiving,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., joked during the meeting.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, touted his district’s agricultural productivity while Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., noted the output of red raspberries from her state. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he’s seeking stronger forest conservation rules to manage trees killed by beetles in Montana.

And Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., warned that using the bill to classify lesser prairie chickens as an endangered species would adversely affect farming in several states.

“God bless the lesser prairie chicken,” Roberts said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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