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Farm bill heads to House, still not a sure bet

WASHINGTON -- One down, one to go, area farm group leaders say.

As expected, the U.S. Senate on June 10 approved 66-27 a new federal farm bill. That clears the way for the U.S. House to take up its own version of the legislation, expected this week. But farm group leaders worry that the farm bill -- the centerpiece of U.S. food and agricultural policy -- faces a greater challenge in the House than it did in the Senate.

It is unusual for seven senators to miss the farm bill vote, but a number of senators' planes appeared to be delayed by weather.

Still, the bill got two more votes this year than last year, when the vote was 64 to 35 with 99 senators voting.

"We need to get this done. It has to be done by Sept. 30," Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said at a news conference.

"We've now done our part again, " Stabenow said, adding that she is "optimistic" the House will pass the bill this year.

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., praised the bill and the leadership of Stabenow and Cochran.

"This process has gone on far too long, but with the strong bipartisan support in the Senate, I'm optimistic the House will be able to consider our farm bill (this week)," Peterson said.

"It's going to be difficult, but if everything stays on track, I believe it's possible to get a bill to the president before the August recess, finally providing some certainty for our farmers, ranchers and consumers."

"The House looks like it's going to be the real test," said Brad Thykeston, a Portland farmer and president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association.

Woody Barth, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, also said the House will pose the biggest obstacle.

His organization, on balance, is "very pleased" with the Senate action, he said. Though the legislation isn't perfect, "It's defensible."

Doyle Johannes, an Underwood farmer and president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, said Senate approval was only one step, albeit a good one.

"We need a new farm bill. But it's still early. There's a lot of work left to be done," he said.

The Senate version has shortcomings, particularly its insistence on coupling crop insurance and conservation programs, he said.

Linking the two isn't fair or realistic in North Dakota and other northern-tier states, Johannes said.

A half-trillion dollars

The Senate version approved June 10 would spend about $500 billion, or $100 billion annually, over the next five years. All told, the new legislation would save about $2.4 billion annually on farm and nutrition spending, but would continue to subsidize the federal crop insurance program.

The program is especially important for Upper Midwest producers because of bad weather that regularly affects planting conditions and crop yields, area farm group officials say.

The U.S. government now pays about 60 percent of federal crop insurance premiums, with farmers picking up the rest.

Farmers say federal crop insurance would be too expensive if they paid all the premiums themselves. They also say the insurance helps maintain the stability of the U.S. food production system.

Area of contention

The biggest sticking point in the upcoming House deliberations on the farm bill appears to be spending on the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, according to the Associated Press.

The Senate version would cut spending by about $400 million, or half a percent, annually. The House bill would cut the program by about $2 billion, or 3 percent annually, and make it more difficult for some people to qualify, the AP said.

Darin Anderson, a Valley City farmer and outgoing president of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, noted that the Senate passed a farm bill last year, too, only to see efforts in the House break down.

"Let's hope they're successful this time. It's important to agriculture and the country that they are," he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., all voted to approve the bill.

The four, in separate news releases, applauded Senate passage.

"Today's bipartisan vote is a major step forward for a strong, long-term farm bill that is critical to moving our economy forward," Klobuchar said.

The Senate bill, Hoeven said, "enables our farmers and ranchers to continue to provide American consumers with the highest-quality, lowest-cost food supply in the world."

Hoeven said he believes this year's Senate bill will be easier to match with the bill that the House Agriculture Committee has passed because it contains a target price-based program, as the House bill does.

Heitkamp noted that the House still needs to pass the legislation.

Still, "Today is a great day for North Dakota agriculture," she said.

But Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who was ranking member last year and insisted that no target price-based program be included, and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., voted against the bill.

Thune noted in a news release that the bill contained the commodity program that he helped write and that corn and soybean growers prefer, but said it also contained an "outdated counter-cyclical program with even higher fixed target prices" for rice and peanuts, and "offers only a minimal attempt at making meaningful reforms to the food stamp program."