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Heitkamp: Push for farm bill at '1-yard-line'

Super Bowl Sunday is less than two weeks away and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., used a football analogy to describe how close she believes a farm bill agreement is.

“I think we’re on the 1-yard-line,” said Heitkamp during a phone interview following stops in Jamestown and Fargo on Monday. “Before, I would have said we’re on the 10-yard line, but now I think we just need to jump it up and over.”

Heitkamp made her comments after addressing producers and onlookers at the Precision Agriculture Action Summit in Jamestown and the Crop Insurance Conference 2014 in Fargo.

“After three years of debate, we are now closer than ever to passing a long-term, comprehensive farm bill,” Heitkamp said. “Secretary (of Agriculture) Tom Vilsack has indicated that he thinks this is imminent and I’ve talked with Chairwoman Stabenow and she thinks the final product is imminent. I think this week is for the staff to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. I think we’re looking at very early in February.”

The process went to conference committee following passage late last year of separate versions of the farm bill in the U.S. House and Senate, with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who serves as chairperson for the committee that includes Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

A major sticking point to the completion of a compromised bill has been disagreement on dairy provisions.

Early Monday evening, Hoeven said he was hopeful that Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who is the House Agricultural Committee’s ranking member, would sign off on a compromised bill. Supporters of dairy production controls have butted heads with those don’t want the provision in a finished bill.

“I’m working as hard as I can to get this done and I believe we’re very close,” Hoeven said. “I think we have a compromise that people will agree to, but it’s never done until it’s done.”

Heitkamp said a final bill could be completed before Valentine’s Day. 

“The committee is writing the conference report and they’ll get together after it is written and we’ll have a better idea at that time of what’s been negotiated,” Heitkamp said. “We’ve been getting little dribs and drabs. But, until we get the actual report, we won’t know for sure. I anticipate that we’ll take a vote either at the end of next week or the beginning of the following week. By sometime early in February, we’ll have a farm bill signed by the president.”

In Fargo, Heitkamp stressed the importance of maintaining a strong crop insurance system.

“Since the beginning of this process, I have heard one clear message from producers and industry stakeholders — crop insurance is the backbone of the farm safety net and should not be harmed,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “The farm bill not only makes sure there’s strong support going forward for the Federal Crop Insurance Program, it makes historic investments to further strengthen crop insurance offerings.”

Making the comment that she had “never seen so many young people at an agriculture event” as she did in Jamestown on Monday, Heitkamp added that she believes it’s important to make sure young farmers are protected.

“There is an attention that we’re paying to this new generation of farmers,” Heitkamp said. “We need to help them manage their risk a little differently than maybe an established farmer would. One of the things that I’ve been talking about is the provisions of the crop insurance program for beginning farmers and ranchers. We want input from young farmers because how they farm will be different than how their dad farmed, which was different than how their grandfather farmed.”

If and when a deal is finally reached, Heitkamp said, will represent only a part of the scope of a new farm bill.

“Then the work comes educating people on what’s in the farm bill,” Heitkamp said. “Producers will need to know what the changes are so that they know what their options are.”

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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