Two pieces of news provide a flicker of hope amid the doom and gloom.
Feb. 05--Signaling an end to the messy part of the process, the new farm bill only needs a signature from President Barack Obama to become reality.
Following a 68-32 vote in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, the Agriculture Act of 2014 -- widely referred to as the farm bill -- cleared its final legislative hurdle. On Jan. 29, the House of Representatives approved the compromised House-Senate version of the long-awaited bill with a 162-63 vote.
"Getting a strong vote in the House and now a strong vote in the Senate is great," said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the conference committee that negotiated the final version of the bill. "The farm bill is one of the most important bills Congress passes, with the need to balance the interests of America's tremendous agriculture industry. If we had been able to get this passed, we probably would have been looking at another extension."
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said during a teleconference Tuesday that she was pleased the farm bill passed its final hurdle in the Senate and said, overall, she would give it a letter grade of A-minus.
"Over two years ago, I pledged to work tirelessly to get a long-term farm bill passed," Heitkamp said. "Finally, we stepped up and gave our hardworking farmers and ranchers the certainty they absolutely deserve to do their jobs. My concern now is how this bill will be implemented and we will be doing everything we can to make sure this is implemented according to Congressional intent."
Obama released a statement through his press secretary Tuesday afternoon praising the Senate vote. He is expected to sign the bill, though it is unsure when. Hoeven said he expects Obama to sign the bill into law soon.
"The U.S. Senate came together to pass a comprehensive farm bill -- legislation that will build on the historic economic gains in rural America over the past years, create new jobs, and protect the most vulnerable Americans," the president said in the statement. "This bill provides certainty to America's farmers and ranchers, and contains a variety of commonsense reforms that my administration has consistently called for, including reforming and eliminating direct farm subsidies and providing assistance for farmers when they need it most."
Many in the North Dakota agriculture community expressed concern over certain conservation compliance measures that made their way into the final bill. However, the state's political delegation and farming leadership organizations seemed to universally give the bill the thumbs up.
"After a long journey, family farmers and ranchers now have the certainty of a strong farm program with a safety net in place," said Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. "From my perspective, we did very well with this farm bill. What we need to do now is make sure farmers are educated on the options they have so they can be ready when the time comes to sign up. We were a little disappointed that they added cross compliance for conservation with crop insurance subsidies. Overall, this is a really good program."
Watne said he encouraged North Dakota farmers to learn about the different options the bill offers, especially pertaining to the price loss coverage program, with fixed reference prices, and the agriculture risk coverage program.
Heitkamp said another important stipulation included in the bill is the retroactivity of what she referred to in a release as a "serious, permanent livestock disaster program," a topic that became a hot-button issue following the early October 2013 winter storm that led to the deaths of thousands of cattle in western South Dakota and southwest North Dakota.
"Senator (John) Thune (R-S.D.) and I are in the process of sending a letter to the USDA, telling them to immediately work on the livestock provisions," Heitkamp said. "It won't be just the cattle loss in the October storm, it will go back to livestock losses all the way through October of 2011. Hopefully, folks documented their losses so they can get some relief. To me, of all the provisions that need immediate implementation, we need to get the livestock provision up and running."
Nearly 1,000 pages long, the farm bill includes provisions for the authorization or reauthorization of hundreds of programs and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will cost an estimated $956 billion over the next decade.
A major sticking point of the bill, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred as food stamps, will be cut by about $8 billion over the course of the next decade.
Hoeven pointed to the retention of a "strong focus" on enhanced crop insurance, the reinstitution of the livestock indemnity program and the estimated $23 billion in savings the bill provides that he said will help reduce the deficit and debt.
While praising Hoeven for his work in negotiating the final legislation, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said Senate passage of the bill also represented an encouraging sign within Washington's polarizing political climate.
"These decisive votes reaffirm there is bipartisan and bicameral support for the agriculture producers who feed our world," Cramer stated in a release. "The result is a compromise which is an encouraging sign in this divided Congress."
Calling the bill "important to the entire nation," U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement that the farm bill contained "meaningful" reform and billions of dollars in savings for the taxpayer.
"While no legislation is perfect, this bill is a strong investment in American agriculture and supports the continued global leadership of our farmers and ranchers," Vilsack stated in a release. "Our communities will have additional support to attract new economic opportunity and create jobs."
Factbox: Key points on the farm bill
A U.S. farm bill was passed by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday and sent to President Barack Obama for his expected signature. The legislation, which was approved by the House of Representatives last week, will cost an estimated $956 billion over 10 years, a savings of about $16.6 billion compared with current funding, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The following are some provisions of the wide-ranging legislation, which comprises everything from food stamps and farm subsidies to meat labeling and crop insurance
Food stamps Funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, was cut by about $900 million a year, or roughly 1 percent. SNAP and other nutrition programs account for more than three-quarters of the farm bill's spending -- some $756 billion over a decade.
Liberal lawmakers argued against the reduction at a time of relatively high unemployment. Conservatives said the cuts did not go far enough in a program whose spending has more than doubled since 2008. The savings are expected to come from reducing benefits to people who are also enrolled in a federal heating assistance program. An estimated 850,000 households in 16 states and District of Columbia will lose about $90 a month in SNAP benefits.
Direct payments The legislation ends a nearly two-decade-old program of direct payments to farmers, which cost about $5 billion a year and went to farmers and landowners no matter how much money they made or even whether they actually farmed their land. At a time of rising farm income, the plan had become politically untenable. With the end of direct payments, lawmakers have instead expanded and revised crop insurance programs, and the expansion could put the government on the hook for bigger payouts in times of poor harvests.
Country of origin labeling This provision, which has been around since the 2002 farm bill, requires meat sold in the United States to be labeled as to where animals are born, grown and processed. It remained in the 2014 bill despite heavy lobbying from the meat industry, which said it was a bookkeeping nightmare for meatpackers. Mexico and Canada, two of the largest exporters of beef to the United States, have challenged COOL at the World Trade Organization. U.S. ranchers and consumer groups largely support COOL, arguing that consumers deserve to know where their meat comes from.
Dairy There was a battle between Democratic Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, backed by dairy farmers, and Republican House Speaker John Boehner over Peterson's proposal to couple a new margin insurance program with a system to cut milk production if prices fell below a certain level. Boehner, who had the support of cheesemakers and food processors who want lower milk prices, said he would not allow a vote in the House if it included Peterson's supply management plan. The final bill excluded supply management but made changes to the insurance plan, and Peterson said he could live with the compromise.
King Amendment This amendment, intended to block a California law requiring that all eggs sold in the state come from chickens kept in nonconfining cages, was included in the House-passed bill but was dropped from the final legislation. Critics said the provision, pushed by Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa, could have invalidated hundreds of state laws on animal protection and food safety. King, supported by egg growers in Iowa and other states, said the California law violated the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Payment in lieu of taxes Rural counties in the West breathed a sigh of relief after the farm bill included a payment in lieu of taxes program (PILT), which pays local governments for the tax revenue they cannot collect on federal lands. The $400 million-a-year program was a late addition to the farm bill after it was not included in the January budget deal. A bipartisan group of 16 senators had urged that PILT be included in the farm legislation.
Catfish U.S. catfish farmers and Southern lawmakers successfully fought to a keep a provision, first authorized in the 2008 farm bill, that shifted catfish inspection to the Agriculture Department from the Food and Drug Administration. Critics including Senator John McCain, Arizona Republican, called the provision a trade barrier designed to protect catfish farmers from imports, mostly from Vietnam. But supporters say USDA inspections would be more rigorous in the interests of food safety. They had a powerful ally in Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Agriculture Committee, who managed to keep the provision despite the Government Accountability Office saying it was "wasteful and unnecessary."
Hemp research With marijuana laws loosening, supporters of industrial hemp saw an opening and pushed through a provision that allows colleges and state agencies to grow and conduct research on the crop in the nine states where it is legal. Kentucky is among them and Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, was a big backer of the provision. Industrial hemp, which can be used to make clothing, food, building materials and a number of other products, has low levels of the chemical that gets people high. Growing or using it is illegal under federal law.
Biofuel blender pumps A provision removes subsidies for fuel pumps in rural areas that blend gasoline with higher concentrations of biofuels, like corn-based ethanol. Ending the subsidies was a blow to the Obama administration, which in 2010 set a goal of helping gas station owners install blender pumps over the next five years to promote consumption of higher-ethanol gasoline.
Christmas tree 'tax' Fiscal conservatives are particularly incensed by a provision in the bill that imposes a 15-cent fee on every fresh-cut Christmas tree sold in the United States, with the money being used to promote demand for trees. Critics call it a tax and say it will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. Christmas tree growers say the fee, which is expected to raise about $2 million a year, is similar to other commodity "check off" programs, like the successful "Got Milk?" campaign, which use funding to promote an industry.
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