The Senate Agriculture Committee continued in a strong bipartisan fashion with a 20-1 vote to pass the farm bill out of committee and setting up a smooth pathway for approval by the full Senate before the 4th of July recess.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) agreed upon 66 amendments en bloc as part of the manager’s amendment.
Amendments individually debated and approved by the committee included measures to refund dairy Margin Protection Program premium payments made between 2015-2017, restoring funding for bio-based programs, and allowing trade promotion dollars be used to promote U.S. products in Cuba.
The loan vote against the bill was from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) who had wanted to have an amendment on tighter payment limits. However, due to a procedure issue, he was unable to bring up the amendment but plans to bring it to the full Senate floor.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said the farm bill proposal was a “good bill with commonsense proposals” and he appreciated the bipartisan work done by Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.).
He said he anticipates the Senate approving its farm bill before the upcoming July recess. He said he hopes the House will get to theirs, which likely will look different than the Senate, but still allow time to conference the bill and make it into law. The current farm bill is set to expire Sept. 30, 2018.
The Senate Farm Bill contains enhancements to the dairy Margin Protection Program sought by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), including improved coverage levels and greater program flexibility.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.,) received approval for her Dairy Premium Refund Act which would return $77.1 million in insurance premiums paid by farmers for an insurance program that left them empty-handed when milk prices plummeted. The refunded premiums paid by farmers from 2015-2017 will be returned to them from the U.S. Treasury Department as part of their regular milk check. The provision would ensure that dairy farmers automatically receive a check in the mail for any insurance premium funds not used to pay claims to them during the previous year. Currently, these leftover funds are given to the U.S. Department of Treasury rather than to the farmers who paid them.
The Senate bill also contains conservation provisions that will help producers access technical and financial assistance to carry out conservation practices on operations. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) added a helpful amendment to the bill to give dairy farmers greater flexibility in meeting their goals under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
NMPF President and chief executive officer Jim Mulhern said NMPF also appreciates the successful efforts of Sens. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) and Bob Casey (D., Pa.) to include provisions in the bill that promote the consumption of fluid milk.
Cuba trade promotion
At the committee markup, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) successfully introduced a bipartisan amendment with Sen. John Boozman (R., Ark.) to increase access to the Cuban market for American-grown agricultural products. It would allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to use its existing export market development programs to create, expand, and maintain a strong Cuban export market for U.S. agricultural producers and processors—at no additional cost to U.S. taxpayers. The amendment passed unanimously.
The National Assn. of Wheat Growers (NAWG) said it is pleased that the Committee accepted language to allow trade promotion dollars from Market Access Program (MAP) and Foreign Market Development (FMD) to be used in Cuba. “Cuba is a growing market for U.S. wheat growers and these programs help strengthen this partnership,” said NAWG president Jimmie Musick.
The Senate Ag Committee also passed language to strengthen the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA)’s loan programs. Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) introduced a measure that increases the FSA Guaranteed Operation and Ownership Loans from $1.39 million to $1.75 million, and Direct Operating from $300,000 to $400,000 and Ownership Loans from $300,000 to $600,000. Hoeven said this level is what commodity groups are seeking based on needs in the countryside.
The House Agriculture Committee’s version was at $1.75 million, however, Hoeven had also sought a higher amount of $2.5 million.
There was some concern that one of Hoeven’s proposed amendments to double loan limits for FSA direct and guaranteed farm ownership and operating loans could have had harmful unintended consequences.
“This amendment, as offered, would have severely disadvantaged beginning and historically underserved farmers and limited their access to vital credit and loan opportunities. While NSAC continues to oppose major increases to loan caps, we appreciate that Senator [Amy] Klobuchar’s second-degree amendment makes important changes to Hoeven 1, including new reporting requirements on target participation rates and a reduction in the increases to loan caps,” said the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in a release following the bill’s markup. NSAC said it is committed to continuing to work with Congress members in both the House and Senate to ensure that any increases to FSA loan caps are measured against current program usage and demand, historical funding levels, and performance targets with respect to lending to underserved borrowers.
The Senate bill uses Hoeven’s pilot program to improve flexibility and funding for the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) Program, to prioritize Risk Management Agency (RMA) data over National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) data to determine yields.
However, attempts by Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) and Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) to make additional adjustments to ARC were unable to be agreed upon in committee. Thune said after the 2014 farm bill, 77% of farmers adopted the ARC program because it protects against both price protection and production losses, but as prices have fallen, the program no longer offers the same level of assistance.
Thune said he tried to get scores back from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on several proposals to make the ARC program workable. “We have not been able to come up with an amendment that gets the job done,” he said.
Kevin Skunes, president of the National Corn Growers Assn. (NCGA), said, “It is very disappointing that provisions attempting to secure a more regionally equitable commodity title and improve the ARC-county program to ensure producers have a viable, market-oriented risk management option were not included in the final bill. We hope there will be opportunities to improve these areas as the bill moves forward.”