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Senate Farm Bill Offers Hope to Sustainable Agriculture Advocates

June 29, 2018

North Dakota Farmer Stephanie Blumhagen with Senator Heitkamp (D-ND) on Capitol Hill. Photo credit: NSAC.

North Dakota Farmer Stephanie Blumhagen with Senator Heitkamp (D-ND) on Capitol Hill. Photo credit: NSAC.

On June 28, the Senate passed its version of the 2018 Farm Bill with strong, bipartisan support – 86 Senators voted in favor of passage, and only 11 against it. The Senate’s swift movement on their bill keeps hope alive that a final bill might be finished before the 2014 Farm Bill expires on September 30, 2018.

The Senate farm bill stands in stark contrast to the House, which one week prior to the Senate vote had just barely passed their own version of the farm bill. Unlike the Senate bill, which had support from most Senators (of both parties), the House bill barely squeaked through passage 213-211; 20 Republicans joined all Democrats in voting no.

The Senate bill aligns with many of the priorities of family farmers and sustainable food advocates and was applauded by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), as well as many other leading farm and food groups. The bill, for example, contains important provisions to increase investments in farm-to-fork initiatives and beginning and socially disadvantaged farmer programs, and also makes important policy improvements to federal conservation programs.

Between committee markup and final passage, 171 amendments were introduced in the Senate, 33 of which were included in one of two managers packages – the managers package is a block of amendments that the managers of a bill, in this case Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), agree to include without a formal roll call vote.

The Path to Passage

Throughout much of the week, the farm bill legislative process for the considering amendments and the final bill was slowed down by a debate over Cuba. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) held up the process because of the inclusion of an amendment offered during committee markup by Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). Heitkamp’s amendment was designed to relax restrictions of federal trade promotion dollars being used to develop new agricultural markets in Cuba. Senator Roberts, Stabenow and Heitkamp were eventually able to reach an agreement, and a compromise amendment on the Cuba provisions was in the second managers amendment package.

Once that agreement was reached, a process that seemed stuck in neutral began to accelerate toward final passage as Senators grew increasingly eager to wrap up business ahead of the 4th of July recess. Before moving to final passage, Senators overwhelmingly defeated an attempt by Senators Kennedy (R-LA), Cruz (R-TX) and Lee (R-UT) to attach increased work requirements for SNAP recipients and require photo IDs for SNAP purchases. That the Senators proposing the amendment could only garner 30 votes suggests that draconian attempts to weaken SNAP, which were sadly included in force in the House bill, stand little chance of being approved in a conference agreement.

Actively Engaged in Farming Commodity Program Amendment

The inclusion of Senator Chuck Grassley’s (R-IA) “Actively Engaged in Farming” amendment in the final bill was a big win for family farmers and good government proponents. The NSAC-championed amendment, which was co-sponsored by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), is a critical first step toward ensuring more equitable commodity subsidy programs. It would make the current $125,000 per farm per year cap on commodity payments ($250,000 for married couples) a real limit by counteracting the most egregious loopholes in current law that allow the nation’s largest commodity farms to get around the limit.

A similar amendment was adopted by both the House and the Senate in 2013, only to be jettisoned by the Agriculture Committee leadership in the final 2014 bill. Unlike the 2013 experience, when there were identical measures in both bills, in 2018 this measure was only included in the Senate bill. The House-passed bill takes an opposite course by adding even more loopholes to current law, going so far as completely eliminating payment limits for all practical purposes. NSAC will be fighting to have Senate version retained in the final bill.

Adjusted Gross Income Crop Insurance Amendment

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) also offered an amendment to reform loopholes and abuse in our farm safety net programs, this one focused on the federal crop insurance program. Although Senator Durbin’s amendment, which was co-sponsored by Senators Grassley, Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), John McCain (R-AZ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Mike Lee (R-UT), had bipartisan support in the Senate, leadership did not allow it to come to a vote.

The Adjusted Gross Income Crop Insurance amendment would have reduced the level of crop insurance premium subsidies for millionaires and only have applied to individuals making an adjusted gross income (similar to net income) of more than $700,000 per year, and at least double that for married couples. It would have required the wealthiest individuals to pay about half of their own insurance premiums rather than having the bulk of the premium paid for by the taxpayer. This amendment has passed the Senate during previous farm bill cycles and likely would have passed again, if given a chance.

Conservation Reserve Haying and Grazing Amendment 

An NSAC-supported amendment championed by Senator John Thune (R-SD) to liberalize haying and grazing rules on Conservation Reserve Program land was approved by voice vote. The provision would make it easier for producers to hay and graze on land enrolled in CRP, while retaining important protections for wildlife and other critical natural resources. Allowing limited economic uses of CRP acres is a win-win for farmers and the environment by allowing producers to efficiently utilize their land while protecting soil, water, and wildlife.

Heirs Property Amendment

Congratulations to the Rural Coalition and its members, and to Senators Doug Jones (D-AL) and Tim Scott (R-SC), for getting their “heirs property” amendment included in the managers package.

This amendment, which was also supported by NSAC, authorizes USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) to accept certain alternate forms of documentation defining who controls a parcel of land. This would enable operators farming on land without a clear legal title due to heirs property issues to receive farm numbers from FSA and thereby qualify to participate in farm and conservation programs. FSA would also be authorized to loan funds to qualified intermediaries to re-lend to families to resolve heirs’ property issues and clear title to farm land.

What’s Next?

Following final passage, the Senate and House are on recess for a week to celebrate the 4th of July. After the 4th of July recess, the Senate and House Agriculture Committee leaders will begin the monumental task of forming a conference committee and working to reconcile their two very different farm bills. Farmers and food advocates will be closely watching this process to see how the House and Senate reconcile the significant differences between their draft bills. Key differences include:

  • The Commodity Title of the House bill adds layers of new subsidy loopholes for mega-farms, while the Senate wisely tightens payment eligibility rules.
  • The Conservation Title of the House bill weakens conservation program funding and eliminates USDA’s largest working lands conservation program, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), while the Senate Bill preserves CSP and protects overall conservation title funding.
  • The Horticulture Title of the House bill eliminates key farm-to-fork investments while the Senate builds those programs up.
  • The Research and Miscelleneous titles in which the Senate increases and makes permanent funding for organic research and beginning and socially disadvantaged farmer training and outreach, while the House bill keeps them on non-permanent status.
  • The Nutrition title of the House bill cuts funding by $23 billion and results in several milllion people losing benefits, while the Senate bill largely keeps current SNAP provisions intact.
  • Finally, the House bill would weaken environmental laws related to clean water, endangered species, national forests, and factory farms, while the Senate bill steers completely free of extraneous anti-environmental riders.

For family farmers, sustainable agriculture advocates, and anti-hunger champions, there can be no compromise on many of these critical issues – the Senate farm bill model will be the only workable choice. There are, however, many less contentious differences on which compromise will certainly be possible. NSAC looks forward to working with the conferees and other Members of Congress to finalize a strong, family farmer-forward farm bill before the September 30 deadline.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill

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