The $500 billion farm bill passed Monday by the Senate won mostly soft praise from Montanans most affected by the bill's farm, conservation and food stamp programs.
The bill cut food stamp spending by $400 million a year and eliminated direct cash payments for farmers while beefing up crop insurance. It also contained several nuances addressing the needs of Montana's $3-billion-a-year agriculture economy, perhaps none bigger than livestock disaster.
For the first time, a farm bill contains permanent assistance for ranchers who lose livestock to natural disasters or predators. The now expired 2008 farm bill offered farmers livestock disaster assistance, but program funding ran out in 2011, leaving ranchers flat during the widespread drought and fires of 2012.
“The permanency will create some stability in farmers and ranchers knowing they’ve got another tool in the tool box to try to hedge against the threat of some of these disasters,” said Errol Rice, Montana Stockgrowers Association executive vice president.
Rice credited Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., for securing the permanent funding for the livestock disaster programs that Baucus created as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee in 2008. Baucus is Montana’s only federal lawmaker currently on an agriculture committee.
“Yes, that’s a big deal. I think it’s a good thing to have there. I’m not sure how many of our members are using” livestock disaster programs, John Youngberg of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation said.
While generally supportive of the farm bill, Youngberg said there were elements with which Montana Farm Bureau members took issue. Specifically, members objected to a 15 percent cut in federal premium support for supplemental insurance policies, meaning subsidized policies bought in addition to catastrophic coverage. The cut targets only farmers with incomes over $750,000.
“You can make a lot of money and you can lose a lot of money,” Youngberg said. “There are people who can make more money than that in a given year for several reasons. Let’s say you have a timber sale on your place. You sell some timber off your land and you have a wife that works in town and that pushes you over the edge. What are you going to do?”
The Montana Farmers Union said it didn’t think there were many farmers in Montana with incomes over $750,000 who would be affected. MFU also supported requiring farmers to comply with conservation protection practices in order to participate in federal crop insurance programs, something other farm groups opposed.
One of the big-state nuances of the Senate farm bill involves the way Agricultural Risk Coverage assistance is triggered. Small-state lawmakers prefer that assistance doesn’t kick in unless crop conditions are catastrophic across the majority of a county that a farm is in. But in big states like Montana, where a county can be 100 miles across, one farmer can be wiped out by bad weather, while the county is still in good shape.
Montana famers lobbied hard for the farm level triggers and won, said Ryan McCormick, Montana Grain Growers Association president.
The Montana Wood Products Association praised senators for including the National Forest Insect and Disease Treatment Act in the farm bill. The act speeds up the approval process for removing dead and dying trees damaged by bark beetles and disease. Baucus and other Western senators co-authored the timber language, which directs the U.S. Agriculture Secretary to consult with state governors about designating a treatment program in at least one national forest infested with insects or disease in each state.
Julia Altemus, Montana Wood Products Association vice president, said the farm bill will help the Montana timber economy.
The farm bill also cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, spending nationally by roughly $400 million a year. Montana has roughly 125,000 people dependent on SNAP.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, which administers the SNAP program in Montana, had no comment on the Senate farm bill, spokesman Jon Ebelt said.
State records show that the number of Montanans participating in SNAP is expected to grow steadily over the next few years.