SC farmers push for federal farm bill deal

Faced with shifting federal support, rising labor demands and crumbling roads and bridges at home, South Carolina farmers issued a challenge Friday to lawmakers here and in Washington: Negotiate a new federal farm bill, compromise and pass comprehensive immigration reform and fix the state’s deteriorated transportation routes.

“We really feel like there’s stagnation going on in Washington on the farm bill and immigration and we need our folks to call,” said David Winkles, South Carolina Farm Bureau president.

“If folks are interested in agriculture, if they’re interested in eating three times a day, they need to call their senators and congressmen and say, ‘Hey, find a compromise. Find something you can live with, even though it may not be exactly what you want. Find something you can live with because we need to resolve this.”

For the second consecutive year, Congress has failed so far to pass a new five-year farm bill that essentially roadmaps the federal government’s intentions on the nation’s agriculture and food policies.

The Senate passed a new farm bill this year, but the House took up – then failed to pass – its own version of a new farm bill 10 days later. Lawmakers are divided on issues such as how much to cut federal food and nutrition programs.

Last year, Congress extended for a year the existing farm bill, the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, which is set to expire Sept. 30. It is unclear what Congress’ next step will be regarding farm bill legislation before Sept. 30, when lawmakers could either approve another extension, pass a version of the Senate-passed proposal or craft another new House bill.

“If Congress fails to pass a new farm bill, food costs will soar,” Winkles said. “Milk prices, for example, will double.”

Standing in front of about a dozen various farm officials at the bureau’s offices at the State Farmer’s Market in West Columbia, Winkles said little more than 6 percent of the U.S. farm bill goes to commodity programs for farmers.

“More than two-thirds of the bill funds food and nutrition programs like SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program),” Winkles said. In South Carolina, more than 100,000 households depend on SNAP, or the food stamp program, each month for food, according to the South Carolina Department of Social Services.

Only two South Carolina congressmen, 2nd District Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale, and 7th District Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, voted for the failed, House-sponsored farm bill in June.

The bill’s failure was seen by some as evidence that the farm lobby in Congress has greatly diminished.

But Winkles said farming still is very important to South Carolina and because is competes globally, deserves U.S. support.

“Farmers operate in a global market today, and we need the farm bill’s help to level the playing field for international trade,” Winkles said. “It helps keep families farming.”

On immigration reform, Winkles urged Congress to put aside its differences and pass comprehensive immigration legislation reform that also deals with the work visa program in order to provide enough workers for the manual labor required by farmers in South Carolina to be successful.

The Farm Bureau provided a snapshot of one South Carolina peach farm, for example, that showed that only 6 percent of all applicants that applied to work at that farm actually finished working the entire season, while 89 percent quit after a few days or failed to show up at all.

“In general, Americans just don’t like to do manual labor,” Winkles said, adding that the farm labor shortage “must be addressed” in immigration legislation.

If U.S. farmers cannot find enough farm workers, it could have a $5 billion to $9 billion negative impact on the national agricultural economy, said Winkles, who also pointed out that agribusiness is South Carolina’s largest economic engine and generates $34 billion for the state economy and 200,000 jobs.

On the state’s roads and bridges issue, Winkles said the General Assembly’s $500 million allocation this year for repairs was much-needed, but much too little.

Most S.C. farm products travel 100 to 150 miles from the fields to their end-users, Winkles noted, and forcing farmers to travel around inadequate bridges or roadways is inefficient.

“Our forefathers recognized the need to build a farm-to-market road system to move commodities from the field to market,” he said.

“But through the years, that infrastructure has been ignored or abandoned,” Winkles said.

“Detours caused by deficient bridges cost farmers time and excess fuel.”

On another front, Winkles said this year’s heavy rainfalls have caused an impact to soybean planting and the regional wheat crop. In addition, strawberries have been fewer in number due to the rains, which also have affected their taste and that of tomatoes, he said.

Winkles, a soybean, wheat and corn farmer in Sumter County, is serving his eighth term as bureau president.