President Barack Obama is launching a new program to help American farmers and rural businesses boost their exports.
Obama plans to announce the "Made in Rural America" initiative Friday at Michigan State University. The president is visiting the school to sign into law a sweeping farm bill that sets policy for agricultural programs and food stamps.
He's coupling the signing of the nearly $1 billion-a-year legislation with the announcement of the new administration program to connect rural businesses with federal resources that can help sell their products and services abroad. The program's creation comes as U.S. farmers are sending more products overseas — a record $140.9 billion in the last fiscal year — but U.S. officials say additional opportunities exist overseas for farmers and other rural business owners.
According to a draft of his plan obtained by The Associated Press, Obama plans to direct federal agencies to take several steps in the next nine months toward that goal. They include hosting five regional forums for rural businesses, training Agriculture Department staff in all 50 states to advise on export opportunities, and putting on a national conference to highlight successful projects.
Obama promised in his State of the Union address last week to make 2014 a year of action, using his presidential powers besides pushing a Congress that is usually reluctant to go along with his ideas. After reaching a compromise to end a crippling government shutdown last fall, Obama said Congress should take three steps to help improve the economy — pass a budget, immigration reform and a farm bill. Two have since passed, and immigration reform has stalled in the Republican House.
The farm bill was a rare work of compromise in a divided Congress in a midterm election year. Obama's trip to Michigan was a reward for Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, who helped broker a hard-fought compromise to pass the bill into law after years of setbacks. Michigan State, a leading agricultural research school, is Stabenow's alma mater.
The bill provides a financial cushion for farmers who face unpredictable weather and market conditions. It also provides subsidies for rural communities and environmentally-sensitive land. But the bulk of its cost is for the food stamp program, which aids 1 in 7 Americans. The bill would cut food stamps by $800 million a year, or around 1 percent.
The Republican House passed a bill in September that would have made a cut to food stamps that was five times more than the eventual cut, and the dispute held up the bill for more than two years. Conservatives remain unhappy with the bill and its subsidies for groups ranging from sheep farmers to the maple syrup industry.