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The U.S. Senate Dec. 11 passed what congressional leaders call a “bipartisan, bicameral” 2018 farm bill conference report.

The bill was adopted by a vote of 87 to 13. Republicans cast the only dissenting votes. Among those voting “nay” were Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso of Wyoming and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The House was expected to pass the bill around press time.

Senate Agriculture Committee leaders held what appeared to be a joyous press gaggle after the vote, with Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, claiming this vote was the largest-ever voting margin for successful passage of a farm bill.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-KS, said, “The 2018 farm bill is our opportunity to make the American food and agriculture systems work more efficiently. I’m pleased to say we have done just that in this conference report.

“We started this journey nearly two years ago. Since then, the Senate Agriculture Committee has held dozens of hearings, listened to more than 90 witnesses, and received thousands of public comments.

“As promised, this farm bill provides much needed certainty and predictability for all producers—of all crops—across all regions across the country. I thank my counterparts in the Senate and House for coming to—and staying at—the table to reach a bipartisan, bicameral agreement for rural America.”

Stabenow added, “By working across the aisle, we overcame many differences to deliver a strong, bipartisan farm bill for our farmers, families, and rural communities. The 2018 farm bill is a good bill for our farmers and everyone who eats.”

Stabenow told reporters that the Senate decided to take up the farm bill conference report first because no senator objected to holding the vote. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI, had said the Senate needed to do its job to pass the bill first, because under House rules, a bill must be hand-delivered to the House, placed on the Rules Committee calendar, then given a hearing and vote in that committee to have it moved to a floor vote.

The Rules Committee met around 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 to pass the rules for the floor debate, expediting the bill to the House floor.

‘Big Four’ difference

The bill developed by the staffs of the “Big Four” of Roberts and Stabenow, along with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-TX, and Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-MN, is expected to cost $867 billion over 10 years, about the same as the current farm bill. This reflects the “evolutionary, not revolutionary” tone Roberts set in the farm bill debate earlier in the year.

The bipartisan conference report, which continues most farm and conservation programs with only a few minor changes, eliminated most of the more controversial provisions in the House and Senate bills, most notably the tougher work requirements for beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that Ryan wanted to make part of a welfare reform package, but then relented to issue a strong endorsement of the bill.

“Rural America is at the heart of our way of life,” Ryan said in his statement. “Our farmers, ranchers and rural communities count on agriculture policy that delivers certainty and support, and this farm bill achieves that goal.”

Ryan acknowledged that the new bill increases SNAP integrity by giving the secretary of agriculture the authority to strengthen oversight of state administration of SNAP to address technology issues and prevent participants from receiving benefits in multiple states, while safeguarding privacy.

 “This bill strengthens work requirements for our federal nutrition benefit programs, and uses savings to better train and equip our workforce—reforms we have long sought to help more Americans move from welfare to work,” Ryan added. “Now we need to build on this, which is why it is important that this bill ensures Secretary (Sonny) Perdue can continue his work on this critical issue.”

SNAP change rejected

The conference report was a blow to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, who carried much of Ryan’s desires on SNAP on his shoulders. Conaway was rebuffed in his plan to pay for a new job training program by reducing conservation payments to farmers by the other leaders of the two ag committees.

Still, Conaway was positive in his final assessment.

“America’s farmers and ranchers are weathering the fifth year of severe recession, so passing a farm bill this week that strengthens the farm safety net is vitally important,” Conaway said. “I am grateful to the president, Secretary Perdue and my leadership for standing fast for the hard-working farm and ranch families that clothe and feed us. I also appreciate the members of the conference committee for bringing this process one step closer to completion.”

Perdue, who was traveling in Hawaii when the conference report was issued, said in a statement that he is pleased with the bill and will urge President Donald Trump to sign it.

“I welcome the introduction of the farm bill conference committee report, and hope the Congress can approve this legislation expeditiously,” Perdue said. “This legislation maintains a strong safety net for the farm economy, invests in critical agricultural research, and will promote agriculture exports through robust trade programs.

“While we would have liked to see more progress on work requirements for SNAP recipients and forest management reforms, the conference agreement does include several helpful provisions and we will continue to build upon these through our authorities. As farmers prepare to make decisions about next season, I commend the leadership of the conference committee in producing a bill that can be passed before the year’s end. If Congress passes this legislation I will encourage the president to sign it.”

Bill highlights

Changes to the crop programs in Title I of the new farm bill are small but still important compared with the kinds of changes that have occurred in some previous bills. Farmers will be allowed to update their yields if the national yields for their crops were higher from 2013 to 2017.

The bill would allow an increase in reference prices that determine farm subsidy payments, but only if market prices increase. As one House Agriculture Committee aide told The Hagstrom Report, that provision will not help farmers suffering from the current low prices because it would be triggered only by higher prices.

Rather than include the stricter payment limits that Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, introduced in the Senate bill, the conference report includes the House provisions that formalize the eligibility of nieces, nephews and cousins of farmers for participation in farm programs if they prove that they are participants in the farm operation.

“Every person who really farms already qualifies for Title 1 payments by themselves without this new gimmick,” Grassley said. “Allowing nieces and nephews to qualify as part of large farm entities merely allows large farmers to get more subsidies. They just need to hire the right lawyer to structure things in a certain way and they can receive unlimited taxpayer subsidies.

“For years, the top 10 percent of farmers have received over 70 percent of the subsidies from the government. That’s only one of the many reasons it’s so hard for young and beginning farmers to get started.”

In the Conservation title, farmers whose land once were in crops but has been in grass for years will lose their subsidy payments, but will be eligible for a new grassland conservation program within the Conservation Stewardship Program, which continues as a stand-alone program rather than move it into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, as the House had proposed. The bill also increases the acreage under the Conservation Reserve Program to 27 million acres.

Sugar growers will get a 1-cent increase in their loan rate, which is likely to anger sweetener users because it would raise sugar prices.

A number of changes were made in the dairy program, leading House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-MN, to call that provision the best part of the bill.

“This bill is a strong start to addressing the issues our producers are facing right now, particularly our dairy farmers,” Peterson said. “The bill’s new provisions will offer more flexible coverage for lower cost when dairy farmers need it most, and provide producers more tools to manage their risk. It also invests $300 million in the prevention and response for animal pests and disease.

“More broadly, the bill invests in research, outreach to beginning and underserved producers, local and organic food production, bioenergy, and access to new markets. It also addresses broadband, farm stress and mental health issues, and the opioid epidemic in rural areas. It’s the product of strong bipartisan work in both the House and the Senate, and it’s something I’m proud to encourage folks to vote for.”

The conference report re-establishes the position of undersecretary for rural development, which the Trump administration eliminated.

To pay for other programs, the bill changes what has been long known as known as the “cushion of credit” under which rural electric co-operatives got paid 5 percent interest from the U.S. Department of the Treasury when they paid their loans off early. Under the new bill, the rate will go down over several years to the regular Treasury rate.

A national laboratory network for animal disease and preparedness and a vaccine bank will get $300 million in mandatory spending with a permanent baseline.

As a cherry on top for its main supporter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, hemp has been removed from the list of classified drugs. Hemp will not be eligible for Title I commodity programs, but it will be eligible for crop insurance.

While there were plenty of winners in Congress on passage of the farm bill, one loss of note was to Rep. Steve King, R-IA, whose amendment that would have made it illegal for a state to establish production standards on foods sold in that state, such as California has done with eggs, was eliminated in the conference report.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or ldreiling@hpj.com.

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