Wyden: “It's Hard to Overstate Importance of the Best Possible Farm Bill”

During debate on the Farm Bill, Senator Wyden spoke on the Senate floor outlining the importance for this bill as it relates to our nation's health and security, environment and economic vitality. One in every 12 American jobs is tied to agriculture, an industry that boasted a trade surplus of $42.5 billion in 2011.


Remarks as prepared:

Mr. President, it is hard to overstate the importance of writing the best possible Farm Bill here in the Senate.  When America desperately needs more jobs, and 1 in every 12 American jobs is tied to agriculture, this bill is an opportunity for the private sector to grow more jobs.  When obesity rates are driving the American health care challenge, this bill can promote healthier eating without extra costs to taxpayers.  When we are concerned about the threat to our treasured lands, air, and water, this bill is our primary conservation program.  When our rural communities are especially hard hit, walking on an economic tightrope, this bill can be a lifeline. 

I spent much of last week in rural Oregon.  Oregonians do lots of things well, but what we do best is grow things; lots of things.  Oregon grows more than 250 different crops, including everything from alfalfa seed to mint and blueberries.  Several weeks ago, the Oregon Extension Service reported that agricultural sales in my home state increased more than 19 percent in 2011.  Agriculture in Oregon is now more than a $5 billion industry annually, and much of this is driven by high prices for wheat, cattle, dairy products, fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops. The role agriculture plays as a lifeline for rural Oregon communities, and nationwide, is an important one.    That is why last year I selected 28 Oregonians, from every corner of Oregon and across all types of agriculture, to help serve as an advisory committee on ways to improve the economic opportunities for Oregon’s producers, specifically through the Farm Bill. 

From day one, this agriculture advisory committee stressed the importance of conserving agriculture related jobs during these tough economic times.  There are approximately 38,000 farms in Oregon, which support roughly 234,000 jobs.    That’s approximately 11 percent of the state’s employment.  As much as 80 percent of the agriculture goods produced in Oregon are sold out-of-state, half of that is exported to foreign countries. 

Abroad, U.S. producers are doing very well.  Nationally, each $1 billion in agricultural exports is tied to approximately 8,400 American jobs.  Growing overseas markets represent a way to create and sustain good paying jobs that rely on export sales.  In fact, agriculture is one of the only sectors with a trade surplus, and in 2011, it boasted a surplus totaling $42.5 billion--the highest annual surplus on record.  This is one of the many reasons my guiding principle has always been to: grow things here, add value to them and ship them somewhere. 

Folks, nothing says that more than producers from Oregon to Florida selling their fruits and vegetables, wheat, beef, nursery crops, and other high-value products at home and abroad.  When it comes to agriculture and food production, our domestic supply chain is fully integrated, which means agriculture and food exports create millions of jobs.  The emerging global food markets represent bountiful opportunities for Oregon agricultural goods, and so I’m glad to see the Farm Bill continues the programs that American producers rely on to help market their goods in foreign markets.   

But my agriculture committee also stressed the importance of promoting healthy nutrition here at home –including getting USDA’s recommended five fresh fruits and vegetables daily.  That means from Burns, Oregon to Bangor, Maine, farm programs need to make it easier for those with low incomes to be able to eat healthier. There should never have to be a tradeoff between health and affordable food.   I’m concerned the nation has arrived at the crossroads: business as usual or real change that acknowledges that the health of Americans today poses both an economic, as well as national security threat to the country.  Here’s why:  

In the past three decades, obesity rates have quadrupled for children ages 6 to 11.  More than 40 percent of Americans are expected to be obese by 2030.  The Center for Disease Control reports that in 2008 alone, the U.S. spent $147 billion on medical care related to obesity.  Obesity is the top medical reason 1in 4 young people can’t join the military, and it has been identified as a threat to national security by the Department of Defense.  It doesn’t have to be this way. 

One opportunity for change is through Farm-to-School, and it should be expanded to foster healthy eating habits, all without costing the federal government any additional money.  It should be easier for delicious pears, tasty cherries, and other healthy produce, grown just a few miles down the road, to make it into our schools.  Schools from Springfield, Oregon to Savannah, Georgia currently purchase their fruits and vegetables from USDA warehouses, which may be hundreds of miles away.  Many producers would like to sell their goods to local schools, and many schools would like to source their produce locally.  The Farm Bill should help facilitate that.  While in Oregon last week, Harry and David, an Oregon pear producer and a major employer in southern Oregon, told me they want to sell to schools down the street; however, the complex maze of federal rules and regulations, is a hassle.  I plan to offer an amendment that would make it less of a hassle for producers, such as Harry and David, to sell directly to local schools, all without spending additional federal dollars.   

A second opportunity to improve our nation’s health lies with SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as Food Stamps.  This program is currently spending over $70 billion a year with no way to know whether it is promoting good nutrition.  Think of all the possible benefits to Americans, if SNAP did more to improve nutritional outcomes of its recipients.  Let me be clear, I am not for cutting benefits to recipients.  I understand the crucial lifeline the SNAP program provides for millions of Americans.  What I am interested in doing, however, is giving states the flexibility to implement innovative healthy food SNAP programs that reward recipients for making healthy food choices so both the taxpayers and SNAP recipients get better nutritional bang for the buck.  I plan to offer a SNAP waiver amendment to allow innovative states to do just that.  

A third opportunity for improvement is gleaning.  Historically, gleaners gathered leftover produce from the fields, but today gleaners play a crucial rule in reducing the staggering amount of food that goes to waste each year.  At a time when food waste is the single largest category of waste in our local landfills—more than 34 million tons of food – we can work to ensure that this unwanted food is used to tackle hunger in America.  Led by the dedicated work of local food banks, many are striving to put America’s food bounty to better use.  In Portland, Oregon, the non-profit organization, Urban Gleaners, is poised to collect surplus food from local grocers, restaurants, parties, and the like and to quickly redistribute that food to organizations that serve the hungry.  I applaud Urban Gleaners’ work and others like them as they endeavor to reduce waste and want.  I plan to offer an amendment that will make it easier for gleaners to get the microloans needed for purchasing equipment to gather and distribute unwanted food to America’s hungry population. 

To produce the healthy food needed to feed our country, we need fertile agriculture land, and conservation plays a critical role.  Roughly 28 percent of Oregon’s land mass is devoted to agriculture production.  Maintaining this land is crucial for its long-term productivity.  To ensure future yields, Oregonians know that we need to implement conservation policies, and the Farm Bill is the principle vehicle for conservation across this country.  For more than 75 years, the Farm Bill has supported infrastructure modernization and conservation projects.  These projects benefit agriculture production, while also protecting wildlife habitat and stream health.  Landowners, state and federal agencies, conservation groups and other partners all work together to leverage resources that provide a broad range of benefits to the community.  It’s the Oregon way.  Furthermore, these collaborative projects boost rural economies.  Water is a precious resource in Oregon, and innovative projects to help conserve this scare resource send an economic ripple through the community.  I’m pleased to see that the Farm Bill we are currently considering continues critical support for these important, and proven, conservation programs. 

The time is also ripe to promote farmers’ markets and locally grown food, which will lead to greater awareness of local markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture programs.  I’m glad to see that this Farm Bill expands opportunities for local and regional food systems, increases access and affordability of healthy food options, and promotes healthier eating for our school children.  I’m also glad it continues critical support for specialty crops.  These types of investments in our kids, in our communities, are the types of initiatives that can change the trajectory of the staggering obesity statistics I just mentioned.  In order to ensure their viability, however, the land required to produce these nutritious foods cannot be ignored.

America’s rural communities are hard-strapped, and agriculture is a bright spot during these tough economic times.  Trade, health, and conservation each play an important role in boosting hard-pressed rural economies in Oregon, and elsewhere.  Roughly 16 million American jobs are supported by the agriculture sector.  In 2011, US agricultural exports totaled $136 billion—a 270 percent increase from 2000.  Farmers’ markets are becoming an economic engine for locally grown food and spurring the creation of food hubs that connect farmers to schools and other community-based organizations.  Conservation projects are an economic win-win for farmers, ranchers, and the communities they live in.  For all of these reasons, it’s crucial that Congress understand the importance of this bill and take swift action to help the farmer, ranchers, and communities who rely on this economic boost. 

I plan to offer several amendments to the Farm Bill.  First, my Farm-to-School amendment would make it easier for schools to purchase locally for the breakfasts, lunches, and snacks they serve kids.  My second amendment, the SNAP waiver, would provide an opportunity for states to test out ways to make the SNAP program a launchpad for healthier eating, rather than simply a conveyer belt for calories.  With a waiver, states with innovation and effective ideas on how to improve nutritional outcomes could actually mobilize and put these good ideas into action.  Third, I will offer a microloan amendment that would expand the eligibility for USDA operating loans to include nonprofit groups like gleaners, all while cutting down on the paperwork that too often holds up these important loans.  Gleaning organizations should be eligible to receive loans that help them collect and store surplus food from local grocers, restaurants and the like and quickly redistribute that food to agencies that serve the hungry.  Finally, based on Institute of Medicine recommendations, I will offer an amendment to establish an obesity task force to examine evidence on the relationship between agricultural policy, the diet of the average American, and childhood obesity and our national security.  It is my belief that Congress should have the very best information available when making policy decisions and this task force will build the foundation for fact-based solutions to the obesity epidemic.  I will work with my colleagues to move this important bill across the finish line because our nation’s economy, health, and environment all depend on it.    

Mr. President, I yield the floor.