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Montanans expect more of the same from the yet-to-be-released 2018 farm bill, and they’re OK with that.

Conservation acres are expected to increase slightly, crop insurance is expected to the stay the same, and the food stamp program is unlikely to see stiffer work requirements for able-bodied adults. Montanans who monitor the farm bill’s progress said they’ll take those terms, unlike past farm bills when state ag groups pushed for big revisions.

A conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers was expected to produce a bill this week that reconciled their different proposals of the two chambers; that was before the death of former president George H.W. Bush, which put House business on hold. Farm groups expect to see a published bill and vote before Congress departs for Christmas break. Either the House or Senate version would have been good for Montana, said Nicole Rolf, of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.

“Really, between the two bills there’s usually things you might like in one more than the other, but we ended up supporting them both,” Rolf said.

Farmers still get to choose between being insured for agricultural risk price loss with minimal change. The sugar program that throttles down sugar imports to the benefit of U.S. cane and beet farmers made the cut.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, will not have the work requirements House Republicans included in their version of the bill. The House farm bill required that adults with no children younger than 6 at home prove once a month they worked at least 20 hours a week. Work reporting was expected for SNAP recipients up to age 60. Those terms were negotiated off the table.

Lawmakers also expanded Conservation Reserve Program acres to 29 million, up from the 26 million acres budgeted in the last farm bill. CRP is the nation’s largest private land conservation program and considered essential for preserving wildlife habitat, although its primary purpose is to control erosion by locking vulnerable land into long-term contracts to prevent development.

The added CRP acres weren’t something Montana farm groups were necessarily looking for. Lola Raska of Montana Grain Growers said her group had supported trimming CRP to 24 million acres. Farmers would rather produce a crop than get paid not to farm land, she said.

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However, Montana’s Farmers Union said the conservation acres were important and they supported the increase.

At the beginning of the decade, commodity prices were in record high territory, and farmers were looking to plow land that hadn’t been planted previously. CRP acres were vanishing at a pace of 200,000 a year. CRP acres in Montana slid from 3.5 million acres in 2007 to 1.74 million acres in 2014, which is when wheat prices started cooling down. Still, the acres declined, down to 1.4 million in 2017 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Raska said she was hopeful the farm bill would pass this year. It hasn't been unusual for Congress to delay a farm bill by a year or more in the past.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.