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Jonathan Knutson, Forum News Service, Published February 04 2014

Farmers, farm groups pleased with Senate approval of long-delayed farm bill

U.S. farmers and farm group leaders aren’t entirely happy with the next farm bill, but they’re pleased to be on the verge of having one.

“Finally. This has been in the works for so long,” said Bruce Schmoll, a Claremount, Minn., farmer. He’s active in the state Soybean Growers Association and also serves as secretary/treasurer of the U.S. Meat Export Federation

Doyle Johannes, an Underwood, N.D., farmer and president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, made the same point.

“It’s good to be done with this,” he said.

The long push for a new farm bill took a big step forward Tuesday, when the U.S. Senate passed the legislation on a 68-32 vote. Senate action on the 949-page bill clears the way for the next farm bill. The U.S. House previously approved the legislation, and the White House has said President Barack Obama will sign it into law.

Obama, in a news release, said that the legislation, while imperfect, will be good for both American farmers and Americans in general.

The Senate action was the culmination of months, even years, of effort by area and national farm groups.

“I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief. I’ve been doing nothing but work on this for two years,” said Chris Christiaens, legislative and project specialist with the Montana Farmers Union.

The farm bill, the centerpiece of federal food and agricultural policy, is supposed to be passed every five years. But it’s more than a year overdue because, until recently, congressional negotiators couldn’t reach a compromise. Some farm groups have worked for several years to shape the legislation.

Good, on balance

The new farm bill, on balance, is good for farmers and ranchers, farmers and farm group leaders.

The many positive aspects of the legislation include crop insurance, disaster aid for livestock and funding for beginning farmers and ranchers, they say.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said enhanced federal crop insurance is particularly important for ag producers.

Continuation of the U.S. sugar program also is a victory for U.S. farmers, particularly ones in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota, Hoeven said.

He said he understands and shares the frustration of U.S. farmers and ranchers with the long delay in approving a new farm bill. But arriving at realistic compromises on important issues took time, he said.

Differing priorities of U.S. farmers based on geography — whether they farm in the Upper Midwest, southern states or the Corn Belt — contributed to the difficulty, Hoeven said.

Strengthening federal crop insurance is particularly important, Kevin Paap, a Garden City, Minn., farmer and president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said in a news release.

He praised the farm bill as “fiscally responsible.”

The new farm bill enjoys strong bipartisan support, which is good for both farmers and the country in general, said Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union.

The certainty of a new farm bill will help farmers and ranchers make better decisions, he said.

Areas of disagreement

The massive farm bill “has both good points and bad points,” Johannes said.

For instance, the North Dakota Farm Bureau, among other organizations, doesn’t like that the farm bill leaves country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, intact. That leaves the United States open to retaliation from Canada and other trading partners, he said.

Schmoll, in his role with the U.S. Meat Export Federation, also said leaving COOL was a mistake.

Now, COOL opponents will try to address their concerns outside the farm bill, Schmoll said.

Leaving COOL intact in the farm bill also has its supporters, who say U.S. consumers need to know where their meat comes from.

Montana ranchers benefit from keeping COOL in place, Christiaens said.

The farm bill linked conservation compliance and the federal crop insurance program, another area of disagreement among agriculturalists.

Peterson said the connection is fair and reasonable, a view shared by many in agriculture.

But others in ag, including Johannes, criticized the link.

Hoeven said he worked to mitigate the effect on the link of farmers. For example, the requirement will not be retroactive.

The legislation contains “reasonable conservation compliance requirements,” Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said in a news release.

Billions of dollars

The $956 billion legislation approved by Congress is expected to save either $16.6 billion or $23 billion, depending on the scoring method used, over 10 years compared with current funding.

Roughly $8 billion of the savings come from food stamps, officially known the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That’s less than the $40 billion in cuts House Republicans wanted and double what Senate Democrats had supported.

SNAP accounts for more than three-quarters of the bill’s spending. The programs help about 47 million low-income people buy food.

Linking SNAP and the farm bill is important because it wins support from urban legislators for the farm bill, Christiaens said.

The new farm bill will run through 2018. So farmers and farm group officials will begin working on the next five-year farm bill in 2016, Christiaens said.

“In two years, we’ll start doing this again,” he said.