It took less than 24 hours for the Senate to sign off on a $867 billion farm bill that hadn’t been made public until late Monday.
Suffice it to say there weren’t many lawmakers who read the 800-page tome before passing the bill 87 to 13. But they weren’t entirely unfamiliar with the farm bill’s contents, which preserved the most of the 2014 farm bill and didn’t make the kind of the changes that would prevent the minimum number of 60 Senators needed to get it passed.
The farm bill version voted on Tuesday, which spends about $90 million less than the 2014 version, was a reconciliation of farm bill versions authored by the House and Senate. It was designed to pass without rattling Democrats over entitlement reforms for food stamps sought, but discarded, by Republican representatives.
“I think a lot of it has been, as the way it ought to be, is not drama, but focused on policy and that’s why this process is yielding a good outcome for Montana farmers and ranchers and for our forests,” said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.
A member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Daines is the only member of the Montana delegation directly involved with the farm bill. Both Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat and Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, indicated they were pleased with the final bill. Tester voted to pass the bill Tuesday. The House is expected to vote on the bill by the end of the week.
Daines’ contributions to the bill centered on forestry crop insurance. The current farm bill made permanent the Good Neighbor Authority provision created five years ago, which allows non-federal governments to carry out timber sales and brush clearing on federal lands. The provision was in response to the forest restoration work not being done quickly enough. Five years ago, only state governments were allowed to carry out timber projects. The new bill, reflecting a Daines amendment, allows county and tribal governments to manage the forest work.
“The difference now in 2018 is expanding that to counties and tribes. That’s a good thing,” Daines said. “Government works better when it’s close to where the issues are and moving it in ’14 down to the states was a positive step forward but now we’ve taken it a step further and moved it down to the county level, where the counties can enter agreements with the United States Forest Service and the tribes can enter into agreements with the U.S. Forest Service because as we know wildfires are no respecters of boundary.”
Daines said Montana’s county commissioners and the tribes were supportive of the expanding Good Neighbor Authority as way of managing fire danger in areas where forested acres owned by multiple governments share property lines.
Last month USDA Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue cited GNA as a means for reducing fuel in Paradise, Calif., where this fall’s Camp fire killed 85 people and razed much of the community.
Daines also got the bill amended to divide large counties when considering whether farmers should qualify for Agriculture Loss Coverage payments. Qualifying for crop loss is usually based on a percentage of weather damage countywide, but in Montana where counties can be larger than small states, its difficult to show countywide damage. Considering weather damage in only only half a county makes qualifying easier, Daines said.
Conservation acres increased
Lawmakers added 3 million acres to the Conservation Reserve Program, which was tapered back in the 2014 bill because farmers lured by strong commodities prices were less interested in CRP. Interest has increased after years of soft prices and CRP acres are up to 27 million.
Daines said lawmakers didn’t want to the increase CRP acres if it meant taking productive farm land out of production. Farm bill lawmakers wanted land vulnerable to soil erosion to be a CRP priority.
“Yes there was some acreage increases from 24 million acres, to 27 million acres, but I think what’s important is not just the acres, but what constitutes those acres. So, it’s prioritizing some of those marginal and sensitive lands that aren’t the most productive for agriculture,” Daines said. “The concerns I hear from our ag community is ‘we don’t want to continue incentivizing not planting our crops, not cultivating our ground here. There’s a balance on the CRP debate and you see it across Montana where we’re losing our rural communities, in part because we’re not putting as many acres into production.”
There’s some conservation benefits to the expanded acres, but the focus is production, he said.
Unique to the Northern Plains states, including Montana, is a new Soil Health and Income Protection Program that doesn’t lock acres out of production for as long as CRP. The 50,000-acre program involves six states in the Prairie Pothole Region, the other five, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa. Prairie Potholes are known as the nation’s duck factory. SHIPP was championed by Sen. Jon Thune, R-S.D.
The Conservation Stewardship Program made the cut. CSP was a priority for Montana Farm Bureau lobbyists. The program pays for a range of conservation measures, like improving pasture land, wildlife habitat, and water quality.
The Environmental Quality Services Program, which offers grants to pay for cover crops, or improve pasture land. Jay Bodner of the Montana Stockgrowers Association said EQIP was the one program Montana ranchers value more than others in the farm bill.
There was talk early on of logrolling CSP and EQIP together with a cut to CSP as part of the deal. Nicole Rolf of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation said her group lobbied against that move, but would have accepted it to keep CSP around. In the end CSP remained an independent program, but lost $800 million over the five-year life of the bill.
No cuts to SNAP
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, made the bill’s conference version with few changes, despite House Republicans wanting tougher work requirements for adults in the program. Parents with children 6 and older were going to have to work at least 20 hours month under the House version and prove monthly that they put in the hours. Adults as old as 60 were going to have to do the same.
Lorianne Burhop, of the Montana Food Bank Network said cutting the work requirements out the conference bill as a win for Montanans who struggle to afford groceries. SNAP benefits typically last a few weeks but expire before month’s end for most beneficiaries. When that happens, food banks fill the void. But the need would have been too big for food banks to handle if the work requirements had remained in the farm bill, Burhop said.
There are 117,000 Montanans, roughly 10 percent of the state population, who receive SNAP benefits, monthly, according to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which administers the program.
In a press release, Tester said he supported the farm bill for improving crop insurance, protecting SNAP and supporting conservation.
“As the escalating trade war hurts our nation’s producers, this bipartisan Farm Bill helps lessen the blow to Montana’s family farmers and ranchers,” Tester said. “It provides the kind of certainty producers can take to the bank, while protecting successful conservation tools and ensuring every hungry Montanan has access to quality food.”
Tester said that he, too supported allowing counties to be divided into regions when qualifying crop insurance claims under ARC. Tester had held farm bill listening sessions across the state to gather farmer input last year.
Rep. Gianforte had also requested improvements to ARC and the Price Loss Coverage crop insurance programs.
“The new farm fill includes a strong safety net for Montana farmers and ranchers, provides them with greater certainty, takes care of our rural communities, and improves how we manage our forests,” Gianforte said. “This farm bill has Montana’s fingerprints on it, and I’m grateful the conference committee listened and took Montana’s interests into account when putting together this farm bill.”
The sugar program, which by quota limits the amount of sugar imported into the United States and pays assures a federal purchase of sugar if prices fall too low, made the cut.