Senate Passes Farm Bill

Duane Hovorka, IWLA Agriculture Program Director
Hog_credit Tim McCabe_USDA-NRCS

Otto von Bismarck said, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made*.” Doubly appropriate, perhaps, for the making of a Farm Bill, given its influence over Americans who raise livestock and those who make – and eat – sausages.

As the Senate opened debate on its version of a Farm Bill June 26, you might have expected several days of debate and voting on some of the more than 300 amendments filed by Senators to the bill. Instead, after a day and a half scattered with speeches and little action, the Senate voted down two controversial amendments, accepted two packages of 33 more changes without a vote, and voted 86-11 to pass the bill. (See how your Senator voted.)

The Senate voted 68-30 against a proposal to impose tougher work requirements on SNAP (food stamp) recipients. An amendment to reform farm commodity checkoff programs lost 38-57.  The Senate adopted by voice vote an amendment by Senator John Thune to make the haying and grazing provisions of the Conservation Reserve Program more flexible. But the fireworks you might have expected heading into the Congressional Fourth of July recess were mostly absent.

Politico reports that behind the scenes, negotiations over which amendments would get voted on and a spat over whether USDA export promotion funds should be spent in Cuba took up much of Wednesday and Thursday.

On one hand, the process meant the Senate did not have a chance to approve an amendment that would have added California, Illinois and New Mexico to the six Prairie Pothole states that are now covered by the Farm Bill’s Sodsaver provision, which reduces federal crop insurance subsidies on native grasslands broken out to grow crops. The League and other conservation groups worked hard for the provision, and Senators from all three states had agreed to the amendment.

On the other hand, it also meant amendments to weaken the Clean Water Act, gut the ability of the President to designate National Monuments, and weaken the Endangered Species Act also did not get voted on. And in the end, it meant the final bill retained broad bi-partisan support.  46 Democrats, 38 Republicans, and 2 Independents voted for the bill, while 11 Republicans voted against it.

While the League was disappointed we could not get an increase in funding for much-needed conservation programs, the Senate did maintain the current level of funding for those programs (unlike the House bill, which would cut spending on conservation programs). Farm Bill conservation programs are our nation’s largest source of funds to help farmers and ranchers be better stewards of the soil, waters, and wildlife.

Some highlights of the bill:

Improves Crop Insurance

Taxpayers pay billions of dollars each year to subsidize crop insurance premiums for farmers and to pay insurance companies to sell and service crop insurance policies. The Senate bill would give the Department of Agriculture (USDA) authority to offer a “good farmer discount” for farmers using practices that reduce the long-term risk of a crop loss, including measures that build soil health like planting cover crops and using more diverse crop rotations. The League has been a champion of this approach, which would be good for farmers, soil, water, and taxpayers. The bill would also ensure that farmers who follow USDA recommendations for planting cover crops would not jeopardize their crop insurance coverage because they used cover crops.   

Increases Needed Funding for Wetland and Farmland Easements

The bill would increase funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, providing $2.075 billion over 5 years for permanent and long-term easements to protect wetlands, native prairie, and other farmland from development. That is a slight increase from the $2.025 billion included in the 2014 Farm Bill, but less than the $2.5 billion ($500 million per year) included in the House bill. The Senate bill would also make the program more flexible and effective, including allowing landowners to donate a larger share of the value of their easement as part of the required ‘match’ to obtain federal funds.

Increases CRP Acres

The bill would increase the size of the Conservation Reserve Program to 25 million acres from 24 million acres. The bill would prioritize water quality measures like buffer strips, filter strips, and wetland protection, and wildlife practices designated as state priorities. The bill would fund the increased acres by reducing the cap on CRP rental rates paid to farmers at 88.5% of county dryland rental rates, and eliminating incentive payments in periods (like now) when crop prices are below long-term averages. The bill would also create a new conservation reserve easement option that would be available for expiring CRP contracts starting in 2029. With Senator Thune’s amendment, farmers with CRP contracts would also have more flexibility to hay or graze their CRP land.

Maintains "Working Lands" Programs

The bill would continue the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, and Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which work in different ways to help farmers and ranchers be better stewards of land that remains in production. The Conservation Stewardship Program would be reduced by 12%, from 10 million acres to 8.8 million acres per year. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) would be cut to $7.66 billion over 5 years, a 4.25% cut from the $8 billion included in the 2014 Farm Bill. Some of those funds would move to the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which would see an increase of $100 million per year. The share of EQIP dollars ear-marked for wildlife habitat would increase to 10% from 5% in the current Farm Bill. The bill would provide added support for building soil health, including $15 million per year for a soil health demonstration pilot program. But a troubling amendment added at the last minute would allow irrigation districts to use EQIP funds for their infrastructure projects.   

Maintains Conservation Compliance and Sodsaver

The bill would maintain the basic requirement that farmers refrain from draining or filling wetlands, and implement a soil conservation plan on highly erodible land, to be eligible for Farm Bill benefits, an important protection. The bill would also expand the Sodsaver provision that now helps protect native prairie in six states, by allowing the Governor of any state to choose to extend the Sodsaver coverage to his or her state.

What’s Next?

The House and Senate will name a conference committee charged with working out the differences between the Senate and House bill. That won’t be easy. There are substantial differences in the conservation provisions of the two bills. Even more controversial will be differences in nutrition provisions, like requirements in the House bill for stricter work and training requirements for SNAP (food stamp) beneficiaries. We don’t expect the conference to be a short one, but the clock is ticking on the many conservation and other Farm Bill programs set to expire September 30.

The League will be working to support our priorities as the deals are cut and the final bill written, keeping in mind, as Otto von Bismarck also said, “Politics is the art of the possible.”    

* Otto von Bismarck, 1815-1898, diplomat and politician who united Germany and served as its first Chancellor.