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Concerns remain as farm bill tackles insurance, elements and budget

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U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-ND.2 / 3
Heidi Heitkamp3 / 3

As this year's farm bill continues to take shape, the question of what impact it will have on area farmers looms large.

A presentation at this year's Diversity, Direction and Dollars agriculture forum on Jan. 4 by Bradley Lubben, extension assistant professor and policy specialist for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, suggested that any proposed legislation will be tasked with doing a lot with little money.

"The 2018 farm bill is written for a struggling farm economy," Lubben said. "It's the first farm bill that's been written for a struggling economy since '02 and since '85. It's a different kind of debate. What kind of safety net can we give? How can we provide adequate support to producers?"

Lubben described the political climate in which this impending bill is being formed, noting that partisan politics have locked budget cuts on defense and social security, Medicare and the like. He said that the only places left to cut in order to address the $600 billion deficit in the U.S. federal budget are its other domestic programs, and that includes farm programs.

"The budget challenge says that there is no new money. It's difficult to imagine how to find new money to fund, that's everybody's top priority," he said. "We're trying to write a farm bill for a struggling farm economy while at the same time we have no real budget to try and find new funding. It really suggests a flat bill at best."

For context, Lubben said that previous bills during economic lags had been able to add new spending—he does not expect that to be the case this time around.

"In 2002 we wrote a farm bill for a struggling economy. We added $70 billion in spending to the baseline," Lubben said. "Don't expect that this time around. We're going to see a farm bill written for a struggling economy with no new funds."

Producers Weigh In

The currently enacted farm bill, which is set to expire in Fall 2018, has served some area farmers and ranchers well. Byron Richard, a beef rancher near Belfield, said he hopes to see the currently existing programs preserved.

"Well, first of all, the reality is that we're going to be lucky to hold on to the programs we have had," Richard said. "We actually have a better program now then we did 10 years ago ... we're a little bit nervous that we could lose some of the programs critical to southwest North Dakota. If we could retain the majority of what we already have, we'd (get by alright)."

Both Richard and another area farmer and rancher, Rodney Rebel, agreed that drought protection and crop insurance need to be a high priority for farmers.

"More drought protection than there even was. Crop insurance is a big deal too," Rebel said. "Every time when the programs come out, the farmers are getting cut more and more every time. There's not a lot of protection for the cattle people ... I hope they step that up a little bit."

Rebel said he hopes the new farm bill brings more substantial changes.

"I hope it changes into a better program for them and more security for the family farm and everything else," he added.

Richard said he also wants to see rainfall insurance, as the current system is uneven in how it pays out and to whom. The system currently used to monitor rainfall has been a cause of consternation for producers in the past, particularly in how it collects its data.

Congress' work continues

U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he feels that the new farm bill should do more to help provide accurate and useful data to farmers.

"In regards to the drought specifically, what I've gotten from farmers and ranchers is (that there is a) lack of good data, which is critical," Cramer said. "Data has been the biggest challenge and particularly in the big, wide west."

Risk Management Agency data is one of the ways that crop worth is calculated, which helps determine whether a producer qualifies for Ag Risk Coverage (ARC) payments. One of the foibles of the ARC system is that it is determined on a per county basis and U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. said that this creates an unfair situation.

"You can have two farmers right next to each other (and) they can both have the same kind of year but ... because they are in different counties (they get paid differently)," he said. "You were getting results that weren't fair for farmers who had the same result in different counties."

Last year, Hoeven said, he started a $5 million pilot program for ARC intended to help provide funding for improvements to the system.

"All of these things cost money," he said. "Everybody's got a great idea for legislation but at the end of the day you have to figure out how to pay for something ... I put $5 million for a pilot program ... and they're going to implement it across the country. We'll built that into our farm bill based on the pilot program."

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she has introduced legislation she hopes addresses the problems with county lines and ARC. In her mind, the first goal of the farm bill is to provide a strong safety net, particularly in regards to weather and the price of crops.

"(It) is absolutely critical that we maintain the level of crop insurance that we have," Heitkamp said. "The drought really stress-tested the farm bill as it relates to a safety net, and we've included a number of provisions that we're including in the ... disaster bill that's going through."

ARC is one of a two crop insurances for farmers built into the current farm bill, the other being Price Loss Coverage (PLC). Ag producers often prefer one over the other depending on what sort of crop they grow. ARC is popular in the corn and bean states, Hoeven said, but PLC is more well-liked in North Dakota with its diverse crop varieties.

Heitkamp was frank about the funding challenges facing the new bill.

"We're just hoping that we don't get cut. We're concerned we're not going to be able to raise the amount of money we need to fund the farm bill," She said. "One of the things we have to constantly remind our colleague (about) ... the last farm bill we had to take some dramatic cuts ... we don't think we should take more cuts."

Heitkamp said she intends to raise the eliminate the cap on the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program, which is currently set at $20 million, a move she said will add more flexibility on paying out to farmers for this and future disasters.

Cramer said he felt the current bill had done its job.

"The farm bill we're operating under was passed under a very high commodity price time," Cramer said. "There (were) enough high yields ... in some of the really lean price years that ... was able to maintain some stability. So actually it's worked fairly well—I think the premise is right."

Hoeven echoed his satisfaction with the 2014 farm bill, saying that this time around "the idea isn't to recreate the wheel." They plan to build upon the current bill and prioritize crop insurance, counter-cyclical safety nets, agriculture research, trade and continuing to ease regulatory burdens, he said.

"We just want to improve," Hoeven said. He added that he thinks this bill will have the same amount of baseline as the current one, and there will be some measures included in the impending bill to continue funding the U.S. government.

Cramer expressed his confidence that the House was nearly ready to present their version of the bill. There are going to be two separate proposals for a new farm bill, one from the House and one from the Senate.

"To their credit, the House Ag Committee ... they started work on this almost right away last year," Cramer said. "The committee did a lot of work last year. They've had a draft bill since last year, that bill is being scored ... I think you'll see them produce a product here in the next few weeks."

Heitkamp said that on the Senate side, negotiations had begun "in earnest" and it would be realistic to expect a bill to be produced in late February or early March.

The Farm Bill is entwined with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as the food stamps program. Whether this new bill may have to cut that program remains a salient question.

"With the hold-even budget things like SNAP ... they become part of the give and take of all this," Cramer said. "We're trying to do some broader welfare reforms this year ... so I could see SNAP get caught up in some of that."

Heitkamp said that cuts to SNAP are a concern, but she feels confident that it is in safe hands.

"The controversy will be if you see dramatic reductions in SNAP," she said. "The good news is, I think most people believe we need to keep these two programs coupled."