Schumer as Top Democrat Opens Agriculture Opportunities; Dubbed the ‘Brooklyn Farmer'

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By Catherine Boudreau

April 7 — The potential ascension of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to leader of Senate Democrats would be a positive opportunity for agriculture, industry lobbyists have told Bloomberg BNA.

Schumer is considered the favorite to take over Sen. Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) role once he retires after 2016, and the New Yorker is proactive on several issues agriculture faces, such as dairy policy, international trade and immigration. Schumer also has worked on expanding specialty markets in New York like maple syrup and Greek yogurt, while ensuring emergency crop assistance is available after natural disasters.

He is known as a skilled negotiator and was critical to gaining support for controversial legislation like the 2014 farm law (Pub. L. No. 113-79) and the Senate's comprehensive immigration package that passed the chamber in June 2013 but was never taken up by the House.

“We are thrilled that someone who understands our concerns seems likely to take this leadership position,” John Hollay, vice president of government relations for the National Milk Producer's Federation, said. “Agriculture faces the challenge of trying to tell our story and communicate it to [Congress] and the general public. Sen. Schumer understands both producers and consumers, and can help that conversation along.”

Dairy Interests in TTIP, TPP

Hollay said Schumer has been vocal on every issue the NMPF brings to his attention, notably dairy interests in trade negotiations with Canada, the European Union and Japan.

Schumer and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in a March 2014 letter urged the Agriculture Department and the U.S. Trade Representative to fight EU efforts to prohibit U.S. dairy producers from using dozens of common cheese names the EU claims are protected geographical indicators. More than 50 senators signed the letter.

The EU in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations is trying to protect its dairy industry by protecting names like Asiago, Parmesan and feta as geographical indications, an intellectual property right. The EU's goal is ensuring names of cheese and other products are only displayed on items made in certain areas of Europe.

“Having his support on that issue, let alone having him lead the effort, was invaluable and it sent a positive message to the Obama administration and countries that are a part of these deals,” Hollay said.

Within the Senate, Schumer also advocates for U.S. dairy producers in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The lawmaker contends Canada and Japan should open up their markets that currently enforce high tariff rate quotas before Congress approves an agreement.

Senate Immigration Debate

Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers, which represents the fresh produce industry, said Schumer was instrumental in recruiting Republicans so the Senate could pass legislation overhauling the immigration system.

“His staff came up with creative solutions to some vexing problems,” Nassif told Bloomberg BNA. “They were aware of agriculture not only in New York, but across the United States.”

Nassif said Schumer's staff offered proposals on sticking points in the negotiations that helped get the ball rolling, including the maximum number of agricultural worker visas awarded each year and the benefits those workers would receive.

The Senate measure had the support of many Republicans and Democrats, as well as agribusiness, employers and farm worker organizations that said the legislation would have addressed the current shortage of agriculture workers in the U.S.

‘Brooklyn Farmer.'

Schumer's work in the agriculture sector has earned the Brooklyn-born senator the nickname “The Brooklyn Farmer,” Dean Norton, president of the New York Farm Bureau, said.

“I’ve got Schumer’s cell phone number, so that tells me something. And anytime I call him, he's receptive,” Norton told Bloomberg BNA.

Schumer was quick to support the 2014 farm law and worked with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to ensure dairy producers had an insurance program. The Margin Protection Program (MPP) is designed to protect milk producers from the cyclical nature of milk prices that rise and fall precipitously. More than half the nation's dairy producers have signed up.

After Tropical Storm Irene hit New York in 2011, Schumer worked with federal agencies to ensure crop producers were compensated. And when his state's maple producers called for expanded market opportunities, Schumer got a program into the 2014 farm law to promote industry growth. Schumer on March 15 sent a letter to Senate chairmen of the agriculture appropriations subcommittee requesting no less than $5 million in funding for the program in fiscal year 2016.

Although agriculture policies aren't at the forefront of Schumer's committee assignments—he serves on Rules and Administration, Judiciary, Finance and Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs—that doesn’t preclude the senator from being a strong advocate, Hollay of the NMPF said.

Hollay added that he often gets calls from Schumer's staff asking how they can help on emerging issues. “It's always impressive when a member is ahead of you.”

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