EAST LANSING, Mich. -- President Barack Obama signed the $956 billion farm bill Friday at Michigan State University, where he extolled the benefits of a thriving agricultural sector for the nation's overall economy.
Standing in front of a tractor and other farm equipment, Obama said the legislation "lifts up our rural communities" and would give more Americans "a shot at opportunity" in the years ahead.
"We've had the strongest stretch of farm exports in
our history," Obama told about 500 farmers and local officials in a horse barn at the university. "We are selling more stuff to more people than ever before," he said, adding, "What we grow here and what we sell is a huge boost to the entire economy, but particularly the rural economy."
Lawmakers passed the sprawling legislation this week after four years of bitter arguments over farming subsidies and Republican efforts to reduce financing for food stamps. The final bill replaces direct crop payments with an insurance program and trims $8 billion from food stamps over the next decade -- far less than the $40 billion cut some Republicans had called for.
The bill didn't go as far as some would have liked in changing the nation's farm payments system but it will cause farmers to restructure their operations and expectations.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, the author of House legislation to combat the deadly bacterial disease crippling Florida's citrus industry, hailed earlier this week Senate passage of the farm bill, which includes research funding for citrus greening.
"Finding a cure for this destructive disease is essential to maintaining a strong economy and protecting jobs in Sarasota and Manatee counties," said Buchanan in a press release.
As the top citrus-producing state in the nation, the Florida citrus industry generates $9 billion in economic activity and employs nearly 76,000 people. Sarasota and Manatee counties alone support $994 million in economic activity and employ 8,700 workers.
Obama signed the Agriculture Act of 2014 at Michigan State's equine performance center. Some locals call Michigan State - known for its dairy program - "Moo U," and Michigan has one of the nation's largest and most diverse farming economies. Obama said too many farm families were still struggling to make a living, and said the new bill would help.
"I've seen how hard it can be to be a farmer," he said. Big corporate farms are doing well, the president said, but "there are even more small farms, family farms, where folks are just scratching out a living."
The president arrived with several Democratic lawmakers and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Air Force One just after noon Friday and was greeted by the mayor of East Lansing. The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said about 50 lawmakers -- including many Republicans -- were invited to the bill signing, but no Republicans accepted.
The Democrats aboard included Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin of Michigan. Also on board were Reps. Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio and Dan Kildee of Michigan, both Democrats.
"Everyone invited has to speak for himself or herself about their decision to attend or not attend," Carney told reporters. "Look, this was a bipartisan effort and everyone involved in it deserves credit. The president is happy to share credit for that. The members that are on board today were deeply involved in helping this come about, and the president is very glad to have them join him."
In his remarks, Obama announced a new "Made in Rural America" initiative that he said would help rural businesses market their goods abroad. White House officials also announced five regional forums on rural exports and an "investing in rural America" conference. Obama directed the White House Rural Council to host sessions in all 50 states to train Agriculture Department staff members on how to promote rural exports.
The president called the farm bill a "jobs bill," an "innovation bill," a "research bill" and a "conservation bill." But he said two main benefits of the bill would be to help rural communities and provide food assistance to poor families and children.
He noted that the legislation would provide the money for the nation's food stamp program, which helps poor families buy groceries even as it provides an important market for the nation's farmers.
"More than half of all Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lives," Obama said. "For more than half a century, this country has helped Americans put food on the table when they hit a rough patch or when they're working hard but aren't making enough money to feed their kids. They're not looking for a handout, these folks, they're looking for a hand up."
Some advocates for the poor criticized the new farm bill, saying that spending cuts in the food stamp program will reduce the amount of money poor families receive for food. Margarette Purvis, president of the Food Bank For New York City, said in a statement that she was "deeply disappointed" in the bill.
"Whatever the justifications being touted, we are left with the reality that hundreds of thousands of low-income families will face new hardship when they see their food assistance cut," she said.
Obama has pledged to spend the next year focused on increasing economic opportunity for the middle class and confronting growing income inequality. But the president usually talks about the challenges for suburban and urban families. The appearance in Michigan on Friday gave him a chance to speak to the issues that many of the country's rural families face.
The White House released a report Friday from Obama's Council of Economic Advisers that said farm income had risen significantly since the president took office in the depths of the recession.
"The past five years represents one of the strongest periods in our nation's farm economy," the report notes. "Not only does American agriculture put food on the table of American families at affordable prices and provide raw material for a range of vital purposes, it also supports one out of every 12 jobs in the economy. The hard work done on the farm is felt throughout our economy, particularly when agriculture is thriving."
The report says farm income is expected to total $131 billion in 2013, a 46 percent increase since 2008. Most of the increase is attributed to improved productivity, and the report notes that the values of livestock and crops are rising.
One of the most contentious elements of the farm bill was the elimination of $5 billion in direct subsidies to farmers for their crops, whether they grew them or not. The subsidies were replaced by an insurance program that will help farmers only when they need it.
The Council of Economic Advisers' report said the legislation would help provide "programs that finance investments in broadband, telecommunications, distance learning and telemedicine, entrepreneurship, and business development and growth."
And it said that the legislation would continue an "emphasis on small-business development, job creation and growth" in rural areas.