What’s in the stimulus package for farmers?

At more than 1,100 pages, the economic stimulus package is still being unpacked by interest groups and affected parties across the country, including farmers and rural advocates.

What’s in it for agriculture? Well, if the economy recovers briskly, farmers and rural folks will benefit. But if you go looking for specific appropriations for growers, producers, processors and others involved in putting food on our tables, it’s a little harder to quantify.

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, was one of the few Democrats to oppose the bill.

“Had this stimulus bill been limited only to programs directly resulting in job creation and infrastructure projects, and for unemployment compensation and food stamps, I might have felt comfortable voting for it,” he said in a statement. “However, increasing the price tag on this massive package to include tax giveaways and additional spending on programs that have little or nothing to do with economic development is the wrong way to do this.”

Rep. Collin Peterson
Rep. Collin Peterson

Senate Ag Committee chair Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said job creation might be the biggest benefit in the package.

“The economic downturn has cut across all sectors of our country, further straining the rural and agricultural communities and increasing food insecurity,” he said.

$250 million for bioenergy was cut
Harkin was unhappy that $250 million for increased USDA spending on bioenergy was sliced from the package at the last minute. About $50 million was left in the bill for a USDA program to help farmers produce their own energy. Also trimmed, from $245 million to $50 million, was money for USDA computer technology upgrades.

Here’s a partial breakdown of other rural and food-related funding:

• $20 billion for a temporary increase in food stamps.

• $4.7 billion to the Commerce Department and $2.5 billion to the Agriculture Department to expand broadband services in rural America.

• $1.6 billion to the Department of Energy for energy research, including biofuels.

• An agriculture disaster transition program, which could cost as much as $800 million. To be eligible for payments, farmers must pay a fee and have been covered by insurance.

• $515 million for wildfire prevention programs. Some of that money may come Minnesota’s way. Don Arnosti, a researcher with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, applied for a piece of it; IATP had a grant application nearly written before the stimulus package came up. “We found out at 3 o’clock one afternoon that the applications had to be in by 10 the next day,” he said. “That’s how fast things are happening.”

• $290 million for watershed protection and flood prevention, half of which goes to buy easements, plus another $50 million for flood control.

• $176 million for repair and upkeep of agricultural research stations.

The food-stamp program increase brought praise from farm groups. “This will help farmers, who as a result of the economic downturn have experienced decreased demand for their products,” said Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union.

Alternative-energy tax credits extended
The bill also extends solar, wind and biomass energy tax credits for three years; those credits were due to expire next year. “Those are huge,” Arnosti said.

Finally, like other small business owners, farmers will benefit from changes in the tax laws that are designed to improve cash flow and equipment purchases.

A spokesperson for John Deere, the agriculture equipment maker, said the stimulus would have “minimal impact” on its business.

There are many, many smaller projects hidden in the fine print. I’ll keep digging through the package and keep you posted.

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