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Senate Ag Moves Farm Bill Forward

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The Senate Agriculture Committee Wednesday passed its version of the farm bill, sending the legislation on to the full Senate for consideration. Senators voted 20-1, with just Iowa’s Chuck Grassley voting against the bill. The markup session included a visit by Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who told the Committee the Senate will consider the farm bill before the July Fourth recess. Further, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has asked his party to “not slow down” the process. In a joint statement, Committee leaders Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow said the bipartisan farm bill process “is a reminder of how things should work in Washington,” while urging their Senate colleagues to support the bill.

The Senate bill was created to receive votes from both sides of the aisle, a stark difference from the Republican-only backed House version of the bill that failed last month. House Ag Democrats want to “go back to the drawing board” to fix the bill, while the Freedom Caucus is also demanding a vote on immigration before reconsidering the farm bill.

Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly (D) said of the bill during the Ag Committee hearing, “It protects crop insurance, helps fight the opioid epidemic, promotes voluntary conservation, develops new market opportunities, supports rural communities, and helps address food insecurity. It’s not perfect, but it’s a very good bill. It’s a testament to the members of this committee being able to work together as advocates for agriculture.”

According to an analysis of the bill by the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois; and the Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics at Ohio State University, the Senate Ag Committee draft bill contains reauthorizations for all 12 titles from the 2014 farm bill, much of which constitutes fairly straight-forward extensions of authorizations and funds, some with minor modifications.

Highlights from the analysis include:

Title I–Commodities

The Senate Ag Committee draft bill reauthorizes Price Loss Coverage (PLC) and Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) programs with modifications mostly to county-level coverage in ARC (ARC-CO), the economists said.

For ARC-CO, the Senate Ag Committee draft bill modifies yield calculations. First, the bill would clarify that the county of physical location for the FSA farm is the county to be used for the benchmark and actual revenue calculations.

Second, the plug yield used in the benchmark calculation would be increased to 75 percent of the transitional yield for the county.

Third, the bill proposes modifying the benchmark yield for ARC-CO coverage based on a trend-adjusted yield factor used by crop insurance for the trend yield endorsement.

Fourth, the bill would instruct USDA to use a single source of data for county yields (actual and benchmark) to avoid the problems experienced in recent years when NASS data and crop insurance data were used interchangeably.

Dairy

The dairy program is renamed “Dairy Risk Coverage” and coverage levels of $8.50 and $9 are added. Premiums are generally increased for existing coverage levels, and the discount for small producers (under 2 million pounds) is increased.

The bill proposes to reduce the adjusted gross income (AGI) eligibility requirement from $900,000 to $700,000 (three-year average). Payment limits are unchanged ($125,000) for ARC, PLC and marketing loan gains or LDP.

Also notable is a provision that directs the Secretary of Agriculture to review the establishment, calculation, reallocation, adjustment and reduction of base acres.

Sugar policy and the supplemental disaster assistance programs are also extended.

Title II–Conservation

Changes in the conservation programs in Title II include an increase in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage cap from 24 million under current law to 25 million acres.

It also includes an option to permanently retire land under a conservation reserve easement as an alternative to reenrollment in the 10 to 15 year rental contracts.

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) program acreage enrollment requirement is decreased from 10 million acres per fiscal year to 8.8 million acres per fiscal year, but national average assistance is to remain at $18 per acre. The bill also adds provisions for advanced grazing management and management-intensive rotational grazing to CSP.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is extended with minor modifications, including an emphasis on soil health efforts.

The bill would also continue the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) with minor modifications to both programs.

Title IV—Nutrition

Unlike the House bill, Kran said, the Senate version does not make cuts to nutrition programs.

Title XI–Crop Insurance

The crop insurance title includes the requirement that a farmer can lose insurance coverage for failing to follow good farming practices, defined as those under which the insured crop would be expected to make normal progress toward maturity under typical growing conditions.

Such practices include “voluntary good farming practices” which are scientifically sound, sustainable and organic farming practices, as well as conservation activities or enhancements that have been approved by either the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) or local agricultural experts.

The bill provides that cover crop termination cannot affect the insurability of an insurable crop if termination is carried out according to NRCS guidelines or those of other agricultural experts.

The Senate Ag Committee draft authorizes discounts for farmers who adopt practices that can be demonstrated to reduce risks relative to other practices. It would also permit farmers to consolidate enterprise units across county lines.