WASHINGTON-The U.S. Senate Ag Committee introduced its 2018 Farm Bill on Friday, June 8, that's expected to be voted on by the panel next week and possibly reach the Senate floor by the end of the month.
The House, which voted down its version of the bill last month, could also possibly take up the issue again later this month, which would send it to a conference committee to iron out differences.
If the Senate version moves ahead, it seems to have a better chance of passing because it doesn't include the stiffer work requirement for able-bodied food stamp recipients included in the House bill.
Democrats have been fighting against that provision, saying reforms are needed but not the way the Republicans have proposed.
Either way, Upper Midwest senators on the ag committee said Friday they were pleased with their measure.
"The message we wanted to send was that the Senate came together on this bill in a bipartisan way and with the late spring, low commodity prices and the tariffs boomeranging around the farm we wanted a steady, consistent farm bill to pass," said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "We don't want a fight about that. We're ready to go."
U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., agrees.
"With the difficult dynamics facing the ag community, with prices half of what they were five years ago, we want to provide some certainty to producers," Thune said. "They want a bill by the time the current farm bill expires this fall. They don't want an extension."
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., also emphasized the need for a bill this summer in a news release.
"Our farm economy faces many challenges, from natural disasters to uncertain trade policies," she said. "Our bill would give our farmers the certainty they need to make important operational decisions and support critical safety net programs like crop insurance."
Klobuchar, Thune, and Heitkamp as well as Sen.John Hoeven, D-N.D., who are all on the ag panel, touted various changes and emphasized they were able to keep the "heart and soul" of the farm safety net's crop insurance program intact.
Crop insurance, said Thune, is one of the most popular of the programs in the bill.
The Trump administration had proposed cuts in the program that an estimated 90 to 95 percent of producers use.
"We were able to keep it intact," Thune said. "There will be some efforts as this moves forward to raise premiums or cut payments but I think there is strong support from both sides of the aisle to keep it as it is. It really is the cornerstone or heart and soul of the protection for producers."
The crop insurance program offers a faster, more consistent response than the days when Congress would fight over disaster assistance packages after droughts or major storms in a haphazard way that wouldn't deliver checks to farmers for months.
Now it can be just weeks before crop insurance payments are made.
Thune, who serves a state known for its popular and abundant pheasant hunting, is also concerned about the amount of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program.
The senator proposed 30 million acres in the program, but the Senate version calls for 25 million. However, the House has proposed 29 million acres.
The current CRP acres are capped at 24 million.
Thune said he will attempt to amend the Senate bill when the ag committee marks it up and considers changes next week.
He said South Dakota wildlife officials estimate 1.1 million acres are needed in South Dakota to get the maximum benefit for pheasants and other wildlife. Under the current bill, about 900,000 acres are in CRP in the state.
However, the increase to 30 million acres comes with a price of about $3 billion, according to Thune's top ag adviser Lynn Tjeerdsma, who also has farms in central South Dakota.
Thune said they are trying to find ways to finance the extra acres and keep it in line with the budget.
What is included in the bill is a Thune-sponsored shorter-term conservation program called SHIPP. The voluntary program provides farmers with a three, four or five-year enrollment that requires land to be planted to a native grass cover with an annual payment of one-half of the CRP rental per acre rate for the county.
"We really had some positive feedback on this," Thune said. "Farmers said they wanted an alternative to CRP and this is voluntary and a shorter term and can be used on some of the lower yielding parts of a farm."
Thune had also hoped to get through a measure that would allow some grazing and haying on CRP land, eliminating extra work and requests for special exemptions. That, however, didn't pass.
Klobuchar, meanwhile, said one of her priorities in the bill was funding for a vaccine bank that could be used for further disease outbreaks in the poultry or livestock industries. She said the recent avian influenza outbreak on turkey farms in Minnesota that caused millions in damages and the danger of foot and mouth disease in livestock were reasons to boost that effort.
She also noted her work with Thune on an Ag Data Act to improve the sharing of research of farming and conservation advancements that could help farmers reduce costs and boost their operations.
The senator said data was available from USDA but it needs to be better utilized to help producers know which conservation practices reduce risk and improve profitability.
As for the arguments over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, Thune and Klobuchar had some differing views.
Thune said he believes that further work requirements make sense.
"For the first time in three decades, there are more jobs than people looking," he said.
With 80 percent of the farm bill going to SNAP nutrition programs, Thune said changes are needed to try to reduce costs.
"It's hard to get the votes," from his urban counterparts, he said. Thune is going to try to make some efforts with amendments as the process moves along to improve the work requirement measures.
Klobuchar, however, said hundreds of millions of dollars in duplicative programs were cut on the nutrition side and in ag programs to save taxpayer funds.
"There were across the board cuts in red tape," she said.
She also said pilot programs to reduce food stamp costs were continued in the Senate bill.
Heitkamp, who was traveling Friday and unavailable for a phone interview, said the bill includes many of her priorities after traveling the state the past two years to talk with farmers and ranchers. She said they include reforming the Agricultural Risk Coverage program, more of an effort to help young and beginning farmers, boosting nutrition assistance programs on Indian reservations and working on a program to help combat farm stress and prevent suicide.
The ARC program reform aids farmers when commodity prices fall to damaging levels and was one of her top priorities. It specifically would direct the Farm Service Agency to use the more widely-available data from the Risk Management Agency as the first choice in yield calculations so that county-level data is more accurate and updated. It would also calculate safety net payments so they reflect what's owed to producers in the physical counties where their farms are located and make payments more accurate.
As for the overall cost of this year's farm bill, Thune and Klobuchar said cost estimates aren't available yet and the Congressional Budget Office was doing research.
It is expected to be budget neutral, however, said Thune's office.