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Senate farm bill 'a great start'

Better late than never.

The federal farm bill jumped another hurdle toward becoming law when the Senate passed a five-year proposal Monday evening that would cost $955 billion over 10 years.

The bill, which passed by a 66-27 vote, now will be taken up by the House.

"It's a great start," said Woody Barth, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. "The version passed by the Senate does away with direct payments, which we have been advocating for for quite some time and are glad to see."

Wesley Niederman, who farms in Grant County and is director of the NDFU District 5, which represents Morton and Grant counties, said the Senate bill is "workable as written."

"The uncertainty of not knowing what programs will look like has been weighing on the mind of producers," he said. "In this day of high-priced inputs and volatile weather patterns, producers need to know they have a farm bill to protect them in times of crop disaster. As producers in southwest North Dakota, we know the value of a strong safety net in times of crop failures."

The legislation enhances crop insurance with the Supplemental Coverage Option, which would allow producers to buy a supplemental policy beyond their individual farm-based policy.

A newly introduced Agriculture Risk Coverage program would cover assistance for multiple-year losses and work with crop insurance to cover between 78 and 88 percent of a producer's historic five-year average revenue based on price and yield.

Niederman said crop insurance was the main focus of many producers watching the debate.

"The one part of the farm bill that producers didn't want weakened was the crop insurance title," he said. "We heard time after time. 'I can't farm without a viable crop insurance product.' Lenders want the guarantee of getting paid back for loans made and crop insurance does that in times of low crop yields or total crop failures."

Barth wanted the Senate bill to pass, but added that the one big disappointment he had with the legislation was the continuation of the conservation compliance, which links a producer's eligibility for farm bill programs to erosion control on highly erodible land.

The provision states that producers who receive certain farm bill subsidies can't drain wetlands or farm vulnerable land without following a conservation plan.

Conservation compliance has been around since 1985, Barth explained, and is required of farmers who receive certain farm bill subsidies or participate in conservation programs.

"It is a burden to farmers along the northern tier of the Red River Valley," Barth said. "Those producers lost land production to wetlands overtaking grounds. Other areas of the country were drained prior to 1985, but not North Dakota because of the cost of doing it at that time. Having this in the bill will limit the ability of some North Dakota producers to purchase crop insurance, which is very important."

The farm bill, which sets the agricultural and food policy in the U.S., is supposed to be reauthorized by the Congress every five years, but the Sept. 30 deadline was last year. An extension was passed on the previous farm bill.

Barth said not having a new farm bill has had a somewhat limited impact on producers.

"We still had a good plan and direct payments in place for producers," he said, adding the disaster payments for livestock producers in particular may have been limited and he hoped the new bill would add some protection for them.

The bill proposed by the Senate would cut $4 billion from food stamps, focuses on enhanced crop insurance and continues the sugar program. It would also cut more than $24 billion over 10 years.

It is now up to the U.S. House of Representatives to keep the bill moving.

The House's version of the $940 billion farm bill, which passed out of committee two weeks ago, spends more money on crop insurance and less for food stamps and conservation efforts.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., expects the House to bring the bill to the floor next week.

"My goal is to have a reconciled bill passed before Congress goes on August recess," Cramer said in a statement. "We've received a mixed bag of comments from farmers about the farm bill. Many don't want the conservation compliance tied to crop insurance, and some groups would like to see an extension of the existing farm bill if conservation compliance isn't fixed.

"Generally, not having a new farm bill passed creates uncertainty, and I hope we can do away with that by getting a bill in place that will provide some guidance for farmers."