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Down On The Farm: Anti-Poverty, Animal Advocates Fear Effects Of Farm Bill

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File
FILE - In this March 6, 2018, file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington

Kentucky leaders are touting a landmark attachment to the 2018 Farm Bill opening up the state and the nation to full-scale industrial hemp production, but other provisions in the massive omnibus legislative package have anti-poverty and animal welfare advocates crying foul.

The Farm Bill is a sprawling piece of legislation outlining the federal government’s priorities when it comes to growing, regulating, and distributing food. And in a rural state like Kentucky with some of the worst poverty rankings the country, the bill’s effects are amplified.

This year, language crafted by Sen. Mitch McConnell legalizing hemp is giving the legislation a better chance of passing the U.S. Senate.  

"Kentucky can enhance its standing as a national hub for hemp farming, processing, and product manufacturing," the majority leader told an audience in Louisville.

Among those applauding was Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner, Ryan Quarles, who added that pilot hemp projects have positioned the commonwealth to reap the benefits.

"We have conducted an experiment with industrial hemp, an experiment through Section 7606 of the Farm Bill," he announced. "And over the past few years, Kentucky has become a national model to put our state first when it comes to bringing back a crop that connects our past to our future."

Officials report the projects yielded $16 million for Kentucky farmers in 2017 and Quarles says 57 processors are already online in the state.

"This really... ramps up the hassle factor involved with being able to buy groceries." - Dustin Pugel, Kentucky Center for Economic Policy

And while removing the barriers to industrial hemp could prove to be a windfall for some, food assistance advocates worry the Farm Bill erects new barriers for low-income Kentuckians and their children. About 640,000 or 14 percent of residents rely on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program – or SNAP – a safety net targeted for up to $20 billion in cuts over the next ten years.

Dustin Pugel with the liberal-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy warns the legislation also tacks on new work and job training requirements for recipients – and the penalties for noncompliance are steep.

"Probably the most onerous part of it is that it requires that people be locked out for anywhere between one and three years from food assistance if they mess up, either in a clerical error in reporting their work requirements, not doing it in time, or maybe not meeting that 20 hours per week," he says. "This really... ramps up the hassle factor involved with being able to buy groceries."

Backers maintain the 20-hour-a-week job or work training requirement for able-bodied recipients between 18 and 59 is all about breaking the cycle of poverty and dependence. Yet Pugel argues it’s likely to become even more entrenched under the new system, especially when combined with Kentucky’s new Medicaid work mandates.

"It could essentially gut hundreds of animal protection, food safety, worker protection laws across the country." - Chris Holbein with the Humane Society of the United States

"This really is a penalty for people who work in low-wage jobs," he says. "And the majority of adults on SNAP do work. They just work in jobs with inconsistent hours and low wages."

Commissioner Quarles launched an anti-hunger initiative in January creating reimbursement incentives for organizers of free summer meals programs who buy more fruits and vegetables from local producers.

Pressed on the wisdom of new SNAP rules, he said, "It's also important that when we do allocate money toward social welfare programs that they're being utilized in the best way possible. Our view at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture is that you can't have a Farm Bill with being married to the social welfare programs, but let's be a little bit smarter about how they're being allocated."

But advocates like Pugel aren’t alone in waving a red flag on what they see as regressive language in the five-year renewal of the Farm Bill.

"We're here to rally people across Kentucky and we're going around rallying people across the nation to speak out about a really dangerous amendment to the current Farm Bill," says Chris Holbein with the Humane Society of the United States. 

Holbein is part of a campaign by the animal welfare organization against an addition by Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King dubbed the “Protect Interstate Commerce Act." He says don’t let the bland-sounding name fool you.

"It could essentially gut hundreds of animal protection, food safety, worker protection laws across the country," Holbein cautions, before leading a small group of supporters in the basement of the Lexington Public Library's downtown location. "It's an assault on state's rights. It's an assault on animals. It's an assault on local democracy."

The amendment, which cleared the House Agriculture Committee, bars state and local governments from putting regulations on out-of-state agricultural products or adding tighter restrictions than those set by other states or the federal government. Holbein says that effectively muzzles initiatives like cage-free laws or even prohibitions on horse slaughter.

"As we talk to more people across Kentucky, they're outraged," he reports.

King has defended the amendment, arguing states cannot regulate interstate commerce.

"If California, or any other state, wants to regulate how products are made within their borders, they can do so. But Iowa’s producers should not be held hostage to the demands of California’s Vegan Lobby and California’s regulatory agencies,” the congressman said in an online statement.

Whether outcry from opponents will be enough to prune the measure’s more controversial before an expected House vote this week remains to be seen.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.