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Farm bill vote spikes dairy program regulating national milk supply

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The Dairy Security Act, a proposal that would set limits on milk production, was overwhelmingly rejected along with the overall farm bill Thursday by the House of Representatives.

Whether dairy farmers view that as a positive or negative development, U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, who supported it, said he believes it won’t see the light of day again as the House starts developing another farm bill.

“Everyone knew the fight was going to be about the Dairy Freedom Act versus Dairy Security, and food stamps,” said Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, who voted for the farm bill. “Clearly the level of votes that the Dairy Freedom Act got makes it very hard to bring back the Dairy Security Act. But it’s possible we may be able to structure some compromise between the two.”

The farm bill was rejected by a vote of 234-195.

Mr. Owens said an amendment was approved Thursday, before the final vote, to replace the Dairy Security Act with the Dairy Freedom legislation. He said the rejected market stabilization program, which complements margin insurance, is designed to keep farmers’ profits stable when there is an oversupply of milk. The government would shave a percentage off the payment farmers take home for milk in an effort to adjust national milk production and raise profit margins.

The Dairy Freedom Act still would enable dairy farmers to buy margin insurance, in which payments are made to farmers when the national margin (milk price minus feed costs) drops; that program would replace the Milk Income Loss Contract program. But the Dairy Freedom legislation doesn’t include regulations on milk production when the gap between milk and feed costs shrinks.

The passage of that amendment — coupled with an amendment that would have increased food stamp cuts to $20.5 billion — spurred lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to vote against the bill, Mr. Owens said.

“The number of Democrats that were willing to vote in favor probably went from the mid-40s to 25,” he said.

Though Mr. Owens also was opposed to amendments along with other Democrats, he voted in favor of the farm bill because funding cuts and programs would have been debated again in the House and Senate, which need to reconcile bills they approved into a final farm bill. He said he believed the $20.5 billion in proposed cuts over 10 years to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program would have ultimately been narrowed down to the range of $8 billion to $12 billion.

“I felt we needed to get this to conference now to get the farm bill passed,” Mr. Owens said.

If the bill isn’t approved by the end of September, he said, a one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill likely will be approved. Mr. Owens said he thinks the latter scenario is most likely.

“There are people that are trying to negotiate for the benefit of farmers and the country,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s enough.”

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