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After a rocky six months of trade disputes, Montana farmers are praising a Senate farm bill with very few surprises.

The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee approved the 2018 farm bill Wednesday with strong support from Democrats and Republicans, including committee member U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

“This is a don’t-rock-the-boat farm bill, which is going to be good for Montana,” Daines said. “It protects crop insurance. It protects the sugar program, two critical, important programs for Montana ag. It also protects our ag research stations, very important for Montana.”

Daines is Montana's only senator on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Montana's Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy, gave the bill his approval in a press release Wednesday.

“Montana farmers and ranchers can take this farm bill to the bank,” Tester said. “It works for Montana because it protects crop insurance, strengthens the safety net, encourages conservation, and meets the needs of family farmers and ranchers.”

Tester said the bill includes features that farmers told him they wanted last year as he held farm bill listening sessions in Montana.

Keeping the sugar program in place was crucial for Montana’s sugar beet farmers, said Nichole Rolfe, of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. Protecting the sugar program and preserving the crop insurance offered through the federal Agriculture Risk Coverage and the Price Loss Coverage programs were critical.

“This is going to reauthorize ARC and PLC, important Title 1 programs, and it doesn’t change the sugar policy,” Rolfe said. “Those are priorities.”

The sugar program works like a hand on a faucet, only allowing large amounts of foreign sugar into the country when American sugar struggles to meet demand. If supply drives down the price of sugar to unsustainable amounts, the federal government becomes a buyer, purchasing sugar for a predetermined low-market price that assures sugar isn’t being sold at a loss. That sugar is then sold into ethanol production.

The farm bill also allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enroll a million more private farm acres into the Conservation Reserve Program. CRP pays farmers to leave land out of production, either because the land is crucial for wildlife, or because its quality is marginal and working it might promote soil erosion.

Currently there are 24 million farm acres enrolled in CRP nationwide, which makes it the federal government’s largest wildlife habitat effort. Habitat land is not only taken out of production, but also seeded with native grasses and handled in ways that make it support wildlife better.

In the last farm bill, passed in 2014, CRP acres were deeply cut by several million acres because farmer interest in CRP was low. Because commodities prices were sizzling, farmers were taking land out of CRP and planting crops. The program was cut back from 39 million acres nationwide in 2008 to current levels.

There’s renewed interest in CRP, said Lola Raska, of the Montana Grain Growers Association, but the majority of farmers still want to farm for a living.

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There’s still a lot of frustration in rural Montana about what CRP meant for small towns and beginner farmers 30 years ago when farmers first began signing CRP contracts, agreeing not to farm for 10 years in exchange for a check.

Thousands of farmers did the same with their untillable and vulnerable land. Grain prices were low and the CRP assured at least some profit. But that marginal land was also property young beginning farmers would often rent to get their start. The renting stopped when CRP arrived.

There are other programs in the current farm bill that promote conservation land practices, but also allow the land to be used. The Conservation Stewardship Program, which rewards farmers for farming in ways that protect soil, water and air, doesn’t prevent them from farming. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which ranchers use for help with conservation projects, is also included in the bill.

Farmers welcomed the no-drama farm bill after a year of shaky trade news.

President Trump's renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement has concerned farmers and ranchers affected by changes in business relations between the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Then there was heartburn over a potential trade war with China. China in recent years has been a reliable buyer of hard red spring wheat shipped from the Pacific Northwest. Sales in 2017 amounted to 26 million bushels, according to data released last week by U.S. Wheat Associates, with about half the grain coming from Montana.

There are other challenges to Montana farm products in the Asia Pacific — namely the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. The multi-nation trade agreement was initiated by the United States, but the agreement became politically unpopular in 2016, prompting President Trump to decline joining.

TPP has moved ahead without the United States, and participating nations will begin receiving favorable trade terms over the next several years. In Japan, where 80 percent of Montana wheat exports are sold, the United States will be at a $65 per metric ton disadvantage when TPP nations realize the full perks of their trade agreement.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.