By Bobby Frederick, Director of Legislative Affairs and Public Policy
While farm bill conference negotiations between House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders and staff have been going on for weeks, the first — and likely only — meeting of all 56 farm bill conferees took place on Wednesday (Sept. 5).
During the three-hour meeting, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; as well as House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., joined the other House and Senate conferees, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to discuss their main priorities and parochial provisions they hope to include in the final version of the bill.
Given that there are only a handful of legislative days before the Sept. 30 deadline when the current farm bill expires, Conaway and Peterson remarked that an agreement of the principals would need to be reached sometime next week to get the farm bill to the president’s desk on time.
The highest profile issue to resolve is whether any new work requirements for those who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits will be included. President Donald Trump has signaled on multiple occasions that he wants to see stronger work requirements for SNAP. The House’s farm bill included such provisions; the bill was approved on a party-line vote. The Senate bill, however, did not broach this subject and several senators at the conference meeting said any such reforms could not pass the Senate.
The House and Senate also have significant differences in the conservation provisions to resolve. For instance, the House farm bill raised the CRP acreage cap to 29 million acres (from 24 million), with 3 million of these acres devoted to grasslands. Meanwhile, the Senate only raised the cap 1 million acres to 25 million acres, but in a troubling development also included a conservation easement program that the NGFA believes could make eligible more than 5 million acres of expiring continuous CRP acreage for permanent easements. In his remarks, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., mentioned that this new easement program “is one of the most common concerns” he’s heard from his constituents.
During his remarks to the farm bill conference, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said CRP “needs to go back up…We need to send a signal to commodity traders that we’re not going to be at these production levels forever.” However, the NGFA believes this would risk ceding U.S. market share to foreign competition by idling productive farmland.
The NGFA commended several members of Congress for their statements during the conference committee session, particularly Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Joni Ernst, R-Iowa; and Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Ill.; Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio; and Roger Marshall, R-Kan., for raising issues important to its members:
Sen. Brown referenced the bipartisan reforms in the “Give Our Resources the Opportunity to Work” (GROW Act) to “target sensitive acres” into the CRP.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ernst told fellow conferees that to benefit rural economies, “the Senate bill does include a handful of my priority provisions that reduce CRP rental rates to help beginning farmers access farmland…and we’re trying to ensure that the land being enrolled is environmentally sensitive…all this while investing in working lands conservation, such as CSP (Conservation Security Program) and EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program).”
Rep. Davis said: “I support the House farm bill’s bipartisan language, which I helped author, that promotes better customer service at USDA. Due to faulty implementation by USDA, dozens of grain elevators including one in my district were told that their longstanding exceptions (for obtaining official grain inspection service) were being revoked. Fortunately, Congress has stopped further revocations through the appropriations process. But for those grain elevators already impacted, we should allow them the opportunity to reinstate their longstanding exceptions. This is about free markets.”
Rep. Marshall noted that, “In conservation, keeping good land in production and focusing on our working lands programs is the right approach. CRP rates should be realigned while allowing only a minimal increase in the acreage cap.”
Rep. Gibbs commented regarding CRP: “Local economies benefit from production of agriculture. From ag retailers to equipment manufacturers to grain handlers, farming on the productive land we are blessed with helps local communities thrive. This farm bill should prioritize working lands programs like EQIP and CSP and keep good farmland in production to maintain market share.”