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The Senate Agriculture Committee June 13 approved the Senate’s version of the 2018 farm bill.

“The goal, the responsibility, the absolute requirement for this committee is to provide farmers, ranchers, growers, and everyone along the agriculture and food value chain certainty and predictability, especially during these very difficult times,” Chairman Pat Roberts, R-KS, said.

“We are continuing to craft a farm bill that meets the needs of producers all across our country. All regions, all crops, all of agriculture is struggling, not just one or two commodities. We must have a bill that works across our whole country.”

The vote was 20 to 1, with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, voting in opposition. There was little rancor in the 2 ½-hour meeting, with little discussion on work requirements for recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments, such as the House version of farm bill requires. There was only a mention by Roberts of a “focus on integrity and common-sense investment in our nutrition programs.”

Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, said the committee put aside partisan differences and on listening to people who have a stake in the farm bill.

“From farmers and rural leaders, to conservationists and food advocates: we heard loud and clear that they need the certainty of a five-year farm bill. America’s farmers and ranchers especially need a reliable safety net to protect them from the risks they face every day,” Stabenow said.

“When a year’s worth of work can be erased by a single day of bad weather—or a sudden turn in the market—farmers rely on strong risk management tools.

Making improvements for our dairy farmers was one of my top priorities. In addition to the $1.1 billion we secured in the Bipartisan Budget Act, we replaced the Margin Protection Program with Dairy Risk Coverage, and invested an additional $100 million to improve affordability and flexibility.”

Roberts and Stabenow included 66 amendments into a single “manager’s amendment,” which included many of the amendments individual members introduced in anticipation of the markup. It was passed unanimously by voice vote.

A few amendments that didn’t make it into the manager’s amendment received approval by the committee by voice vote.

Three amendments by Sen. John Thune, R-SD, were approved, including Thune’s Improved Soil Moisture and Precipitation Monitoring Act, which would provide tools and direction to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help improve the accuracy of the U.S. Drought Monitor and require the coordination of USDA agencies that use precipitation data to determine livestock grazing loss assistance and stocking rates.

Thune’s Conservation Program Improvement Act, which would eliminate payment limitations for rural water districts or associations that use land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program for wellhead protection areas was also approved as were additional provisions that would allow land enrolled in any easement program to be modified, at the owner’s expense, for water management, general maintenance, vegetative cover control, or any other purpose jointly approved by a state’s department of natural resources (or an equivalent state agency) and the State Technical Committee. Maintenance of USDA easement lands would have to provide equal or greater conservation and wildlife benefit.

An amendment by Sens. John Boozman, R-AR, and Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, to increase access to the Cuban market for American-grown agricultural products was approved. It would allow USDA to use its existing export market development programs to create, expand, and maintain a strong Cuban export market for U.S. agricultural producers and processors at no additional cost to U.S. taxpayers.

Heitkamp also successfully added an amendment to establish a permanent Rural Development Tribal Technical Assistance Office to provide technical assistance across all areas of rural development funding.

The provision, part of legislation Heitkamp introduced in March to ensure Native American communities are supported in the 2018 farm bill, would support rural business and community development, housing, rural infrastructure like electric and telecommunications services, and rural hospitals and health care.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, had several amendments approved, including one to increase investment in renewable energy by restoring mandatory funding levels for programs in the Energy title of the bill and to promote precision agriculture and target broadband deployment to the nation’s farms and ranches, the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act, which was co-sponsored by Klobuchar and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-MS.

Grassley’s no vote on the farm bill likely was precipitated by his failure in getting his amendment to limit payment limits to persons “actively engaged” in farming into the bill.

“I’ve been an advocate for making these reforms for more than a decade, so you can imagine my disappointment that they weren’t included in the committee’s legislation,” Grassley said following the meeting.

Grassley said in a statement he intends to offer a payment limit amendment on the Senate floor.

“A similar amendment passed the Senate in the last farm bill and should pass again,” Grassley said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, made a rare appearance as a member of the committee, thanking Roberts for supporting the legalization of the production of industrial hemp within the farm bill. McConnell said he wants the bill passed on the Senate floor before the July 4 recess that begins on June 29.

Roberts said after the meeting he hopes the bill will come up next week. Roberts and Stabenow joked that the floor action will take only one hour. Roberts pointed out that the 2014 farm bill took only two days to pass.

Roberts and Stabenow said in a joint statement following the recess of the business meeting to markup the bill, “The Senate Agriculture Committee’s bipartisan farm bill process is a reminder of how things should work in Washington—listening to the folks back home, working through issues with the other side of the aisle, then writing a good bill. “Today marks another important step in the road to getting an on-time farm bill enacted into law. We urge our colleagues to support this bill.” 

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

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