Congress tackles farm bill ahead of September 2018 deadline

WASHINGTON – Maintaining a farm safety net that includes a strong crop insurance program is among priorities of North Dakota’s congressional delegation as their committees work to draft a new farm bill.

Given talk that the House might have a bill draft out by the end of the year, there’s optimism that a new five-year farm bill will be in place before the existing farm bill expires on Sept. 30 of next year.

Sens. John Hoeven, R-ND, and Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, and Congressman Kevin Cramer, R-ND, all say they will be fighting for crop insurance foremost.

“All you have to do is look at this drought year and see how vital it is,” Hoeven said.

Heitkamp said she expects there will be work to do to maintain crop insurance given opposition from both those on the far right and far left. After beating back cuts to crop insurance funding last year, Heitkamp said, she heard from colleagues that they want a broader discussion on crop insurance before they will be persuaded for vote for it again.

North Dakota’s delegation expects Agricultural Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage will remain in the next farm, although changes to ARC are likely given problems under the current bill.

“One of the reasons for that, as some North Dakota counties could tell, is lack of data and lack of consistent data,” Cramer said. “They just don’t have much flexibility in how they could extrapolate data.”

Hoeven said there is a commitment to work through the data issues and arrive at solutions, which is why he believes ARC will survive in the next bill. Part of the solution being discussed is increasing the crop yield averages from five years to 10 years or raising the revenue guarantees, Cramer added.

The delegation hopes to draw more attention to the interests of ranchers, too.

“The drought was a reminder,” Heitkamp said. “We were able to make some of the disaster programs for livestock permanent. Some of them fell short in terms of what ranchers needed when drought hits, so we are going to be looking at expanding assistance programs.”

Expanding the Conservation Reserve Program, encouraging biofuels and maintaining strong exports and agricultural research also are high on the agenda of the delegation.

Heitkamp said she would like to see marketing dollars kept at the

current level or raised.

“We can show that every dollar invested in these programs returns many, many more dollars in terms of exports and new wealth creation back in this country,” she said.

Hoeven is proposing increasing Farm Service Agency limits from $1.3 million to $2.5 million on loan guarantees and from $300,000 to $600,000 on loans.

“Better access to credit will not only help farmers during tough times but help our young farmers,” he said.

Cramer said raising the caps acknowledges the cost of modern agriculture, but if the pool of money isn’t increased as well, it just means fewer farmers benefit. He said he would like to investigate whether raising the cap on the loan guarantees will provide the desired results.

“If we were able to put more of that money into the loan guarantee program and we leverage more money on the private side, I think the answer is yes,” he said. “It allows increased risk to be taken on the financial side by the credit agencies.”

Integral to any discussion of the farm bill is the amount of money available to spend.

“It’s pretty clear from budget discussions just out of the White House and out of Congress that the amount of money is probably going to be about what it is for the current farm bill,” Cramer said. If Congress can maintain the status quo on the agriculture side of the farm bill, that would provide a workable product, he said.

“We are hoping to hold our baseline and not see it reduced. I think that’s going to be the key,” Hoeven said.

Currently, the administration’s proposal is a 10 percent cut from the nutrition side, which carries about 80 percent of the overall farm bill spending. However, Cramer noted that’s 10 percent off the past budget, and actual spending has been considerably less than budgeted due to a good economy. So any cut to actual spending could end up being minimal, he said.

Getting consensus on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is important to ensuring urban state support for the farm bill.

“We need to pay attention to waste, fraud and abuse and take a look at the program so we are, in fact, making sure that people who deserve the program are getting it,” Heitkamp said.

“I think there’s enough money there to cover it as long as we design the program right,” Hoeven said. “Accountability is the issue, and making sure we are working with the states to create the right incentives to make sure the people who need help with SNAP get it.”

The farm bill also will need support from the Trump Administration, but Hoeven said having Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue with his understanding and background advising the president will be a big boost for farm interests.

The delegation also encourages North Dakota’s farmers and ranchers to stay involved in the discussion.

Farmers and ranchers should stay in touch and keep their representatives in Congress informed when they identify glitches that should be addressed in the new bill, said Heitkamp.

“The key is going to be sticking together. We have to have all hands on deck because we know there’s going to be challenges,” Hoeven added.

Cramer, who expects the House committee to be actively marking up a bill in November, attended the committee’s listening session in Minnesota, which drew North Dakotans who testified.

“It was really valuable to see and hear from organizations and individual farmers and commodity groups,” he said.

The delegation sees a lot of work ahead, but members are satisfied efforts are getting off to a good start.

“At the end of the day, I think we can get enough support for a good farm bill. We can get this done,” Heitkamp said.