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Farm bill could be passed as early as next week

By Adam Belz • Dec 5, 2018 at 12:00 PM

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said Tuesday that the long-awaited farm bill is nearly finalized and could be passed as early as next week.

The bill should be filed Monday, the House should take it up next Wednesday or Thursday (Dec. 12 or 13) and the Senate the day after that. It would have been introduced this week if not for the funeral of President George H.W. Bush, whose death prompted cancellation of votes in the House for the week.

"With any luck it'll be passed by the end of next week, but knowing how things go around here it may drag into the week after," said Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.

The five-year bill mostly maintains the status quo in the nation's agriculture industry, but it includes extra help for dairy farmers and a modest expansion of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Peterson said. Republican efforts to overhaul the food stamp program have been mostly unsuccessful, he said.

The bill maintains two programs that offer loss coverage and price guarantees for farmers, and it will allow farmers to switch back and forth between the programs. The draft will also, by a complicated mechanism, guarantee break-even milk prices for dairy farmers with about 240 cows or less.

"They're the ones that need it the worst," Peterson said in a meeting with reporters at Fleming Field in South St. Paul.

The bill also includes $300 million in funding for animal disease detection, protection and preparedness.

Peterson said the bill is far from perfect — he would have liked to set higher crop-price guarantees for farmers — but it was the best politically possible compromise.

"It's a damn wonder we are where we are," Peterson said. "This might be the last farm bill. It just seems like it gets worse every time. The Congress has become more and more urban and suburban. This last election made that even more so. And so the problem is you've got maybe 30 people out of 435 that have enough agriculture in their district to vote for a bill based on what the agriculture part of it is. The rest of them don't understand and don't care."

Asked why he didn't want to wait until next year to finalize a farm bill with a Democratic majority in Congress when he will likely be chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, he said it wouldn't have been to farm states' advantage.

"What am I going to do with a Democratic caucus that is 95 percent urban and suburban?" he said.

He said "all the farm groups" are backing the current form of the bill, farmers are anxious for the bill to pass and it wouldn't be "sensible" to walk away now and start again in 2019.

The Conservation Reserve Program, a federal payout to farmers to convert cropland into grassland, will expand by 3 million acres under the bill, Peterson said. Since 2007, Congress has lowered the nationwide cap on acres from 40 million to 24 million, and this would reverse that trend.

Peterson said enough farmers might not be able to get financing for 2019 planting that emergency action from Congress may be necessary next year, but CRP could be part of the solution, as a way to discourage overproduction of low-priced row crops.

"The way we got out of this in the 1980s was 45 million acres of CRP. That's how we got out of low prices," Peterson said. "That's the cheapest way to do it, to take the land out of production."

U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is a member of the Conference Committee, said he has been fighting to secure several key priorities for Ohioans. 

“At the beginning of the year, I pledged to get the Farm Bill done, so that we could provide Ohio farmers with the certainty they deserve,” Brown said. “And I’m proud that this final bipartisan bill will do that. We secured important wins for Ohio dairy farmers, as well as soybean and corn farmers. This final bill will protect funding for critical nutrition programs that feed Ohio families, while also investing in programs to improve water quality in Lake Erie and across the state. Congress should move swiftly so that we can get this bill over the finish line.”

Brown said he has been working to secure the following priorities in the final 2018 Farm Bill:

• Brown’s Local Food and Regional Market Supply (FARMS) Act would provide permanent funding to help farmers sell their products directly to consumers, create rural jobs, and invest in local and regional food economies.

• The Give Our Resources the Opportunity to Work (GROW) legislation would improve water quality in Lake Erie and across Ohio by refocusing federal investments to improve water quality and soil health. These efforts will improve federal conservation programs and better support Ohio farmers by reforming the three largest conservation funding programs to protect waterways while expanding access to quality farmland. It also would reate a new Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) program to better promote water quality. This prioritizes enrolling lands in the Conservation Reserve Program that will best prevent runoff and protect water quality. Brown said his amendment would ensure that conservation funding targets the best, highest quality projects that reduce runoff and improve water quality in Lake Erie and across Ohio.

• The Margin Protection Program (MPP) would be replaced with the Dairy Risk Coverage program, which would invest an additional $100 million to improve affordability, flexibility, and effectiveness for Ohio dairy farmers. This would make improvements to dairy programs in order to better target support for small- and medium-sized producers

• The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which benefits hungry families in Ohio, would not face what Brown labeled “harmful eligibility changes that would force working families to jump through unnecessary bureaucratic hoops.”

In August, Brown was appointed to serve as a conferee on the committee tasked with reconciling the differences between the House and Senate versions of the 2018 Farm Bill. Brown is the first Ohioan to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in more than 50 years.

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©2018 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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