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Senators Stress Bipartisan Nature of Farm Bill With Few Major Changes From Current Law

OMAHA (DTN) — The farm bill that will be taken up by the Senate Agriculture Committee next week will look a lot like the current farm bill with some tweaks to commodity and conservation programs, but no radical changes from current law.

But unlike the current battles that plague the farm bill in the House of Representatives, senior Senate committee aides who briefed reporters in a phone call Friday reiterated over, over, over and over again that the Senate farm bill is bipartisan, bipartisan, bipartisan and bipartisan.

The bill tightens income caps for farmers at the highest income levels, but the Senate farm bill does not make any major changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that prompted every House Democrat to vote against the House version of the bill last month.

Committee staffers said the Senate effort, “the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018,” is focused on keeping the farm bill costs budget neutral compared to the cost projections going forward for the current law.

The Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to mark up and vote its bill out of committee on Wednesday, June 13. The 1,006-page bill was posted on the Senate website Friday.

The Senate bill keeps the Agricultural Risk Coverage for both the county and individual programs, compared to the House bill, which drops the individual plan that has limited enrollment. To improve ARC, the Senate increases the transitional yield and adjusts the trend yield in the formula calculation. Like the House legislation, the Senate bill also changes yield data used for ARC from reports by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS )to crop insurance data. ARC payments would be calculated on the physical location of the tract of land as well. The Senate bill would also boost the speed at which ARC data is reported to better inform farmers about potential payments.

The Senate bill makes no changes to reference prices under the Price Loss Coverage Program. There are also no changes to marketing loans or the sugar program.

No changes are made to payment caps under the farm bill or the current actively engaged provisions. A Senate staffer said that was because of the low commodity prices producers now face as well as uncertainty in the current trade environment.

“Whether it’s low prices, over-burdensome regulations or unpredictable trade markets, it’s no secret that farmers and ranchers are struggling,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said in a news release. “That’s why we need a Farm Bill that works for all producers across all regions. Simply put, our producers need predictability — and that’s just what our bill provides.”

But the Senate bill does tighten up the level of adjusted gross income (AGI) a person can have and still receive farm payments. The AGI would lower from the current $900,000 to $700,000. The tighter AGI cap would apply to both commodity and conservation programs.

In dairy, the Senate changes appear comparable to the House bill, by replacing the Margin Protection Program with the new name “Dairy Risk Coverage” and improving the margin spread to a range from $4 to $9 per hundredweight. The bill also will include some price discounts for small- to medium-sized farmers.

Sticking with the strong defense of crop insurance by farmers and the industry, the Senate makes few changes there as well. The bill will have some additional research and focus on areas such as crop insurance, data-mining and working with underserved farmers.

In conservation, Senate staffers said there is no new money, but there are also no cuts. The Senate bill maintains the Conservation Stewardship Program enrollment that is eliminated in the House bill. For set-aside acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program, the Senate bumps up the acreage from 24 million acres to 25 million, compared to plans to go to 29 million acres in the House bill. The Senate plan would cut CRP rental rates to 88.5% of the average NASS rental rate in the county. That compares to the House bill that would lower the average CRP rate to 80% of the county rental-rate average.

While the House and Senate diverge on some changes affecting farmers, the main wedge between the House and Senate bill comes down to SNAP. The House bill tightens job-training or work requirements for SNAP recipients. The Senate bill does not make those requirements, though it allows more input from states on trading programs and does more to allow public-private partnerships with food donations. The Senate also makes some effort to streamline SNAP enrollment for seniors and people with disabilities.

“From day one, Chairman Roberts and I agreed we would craft a bipartisan bill that works for farmers, families and rural communities,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “The 2018 bipartisan Senate Farm Bill goes above and beyond to provide certainty for rural America and our diverse agricultural economy in Michigan and throughout the country.

The Senate bill also would increase mandatory funding for research, which includes adding up to $200 million in funding for the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research.

Trade promotion programs, like in the House bill, would be combined in the Senate for a single major trade development program that would receive mandatory funding under the bill as well.

Livestock producers would get their priority as the Senate bill creates a vaccine back for major diseases and also boosts animal disease prevention programs.

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