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Associated Press, Published November 16 2013

For North Dakota, keeping what's in place key for farm bill

WASHINGTON — For North Dakota, ongoing farm bill negotiations are about protecting and reinstating what has been in place for years, not adding something new.

In past farm bill negotiations, some of the state's priorities have been among the more contentious elements in the wide-reaching legislation. That's not the case this year, as Congress seeks to enact its first farm bill since a 2008 deal that expired in September 2012 and was eventually extended until the end of September of this year.

Crop insurance remains among the most important elements for North Dakota and its vital agriculture industry. Both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill contain enhanced crop insurance, with some differences that need to be resolved. The two bills also contain related language dealing with revenue loss protection for farmers that covers assistance for multiple years.

“What we hear from our producers is that the number one priority is crop insurance,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

Hoeven is a member of the committee negotiating a compromise between the farm bill that passed the Republican held House and the version that passed the Democratic-led Senate. He said the sticking points in negotiations haven't been issues that necessarily affect most North Dakotans — the biggest fight is over funding for food stamps — and that resolving differences will take more work.

“It's tough, it is really tough to get everybody together,” he said.

But Hoeven said he was optimistic: “There's a clear compromise on all these ... I just feel like the middle ground is just right there.”

Another key priority for North Dakota, reauthorization of livestock disaster programs, is an area where there is broad agreement between the House and the Senate.

It's also an area that has added a renewed sense of urgency to negotiations after a blizzard pounded South Dakota in October, killing anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 cattle.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee but is not on the conference panel. She has pressed her fellow lawmakers to make sure ranchers are protected from losses and recently held meetings in the state to gather their input.

Speaking as farm bill negotiations began late last month, Heitkamp pressed the negotiators to move quickly, saying that the absence of a farm bill is hurting her state.

“We have seen the real impacts of what the lack of a farm bill means throughout North Dakota — from the void of disaster assistance programs when ranchers lost their cattle during a recent storm to the absence of farm programs that farmers rely on to help support their growing seasons,” she said.

Heitkamp and Hoeven have both pushed for language in the farm bill that deals with rural water management programs and flood protections. Language in the Senate version supports flood protections in the flood-prone Red River Valley.

The two senators have also supported provisions that will boost conservation programs and renewable energy programs.

Heitkamp has asked negotiators to include language in the final bill that is included in the Senate version which would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture more flexibility in clearing a backlog of sites awaiting designation as wetlands. She said USDA's lack of flexibility and slowness has been a source of frustration for farmers in North Dakota.