By Sarah Gonzalez, Director of Communications and Digital Media
The Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday (June 13) approved its version of the new farm bill by a 20-1 vote, sending the bill to the Senate floor for a debate by the end of the month.
“We have the support of both leaders to bring the bill to the floor before the 4th of July break, and if we do that we will then give our farmers, our ranchers, our growers, and everybody connected to the great food chain we have in America certainty and predictability,” said Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., attended the markup to offer his support of the bill and a provision included within that would legalize the production of industrial hemp and make it eligible for crop insurance. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, cast the only vote against the bill after being unable to offer an amendment to tighten commodity program payment limits.
The committee included amendments supported by the NGFA that improve the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Both were sponsored by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa; one would ensure USDA is prioritizing marginal and environmentally sensitive land for enrollment in CRP and another would ensure that land going into CRP is highly erodible.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., introduced an amendment that would lower the CRP rental rate to 85 percent but increase the acreage cap to 27 million acres. However, he withdrew the amendment after Roberts and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., assured him they would work on parts of the amendment for consideration once the bill reaches the Senate floor.
The committee-passed bill would increase the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage cap by 1 million acres to 25 million acres. The bill also would lower the annual rental rate for both general and continuous sign-ups to 88.5 percent of the county rental rate. A troubling new CRP provision would create a Conservation Reserve Easement Program to pay landowners to permanently give up their rights, as well those of all future owners, to engage in crop production on the land.
By comparison, he House Agriculture Committee-approved farm bill would increase CRP to 29 million acres and lower rental rates to 80 percent of the average county rental value. In contrast to the House’s version, which eliminated the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Senate bill would leave CSP intact as a standalone program, but reduce the acreage cap from 10 million acres to 7.797 million.
The Senate mark-up did not feature the partisan divisions that occurred during the House Agriculture Committee’s farm bill markup. The House farm bill (H.R. 2) failed to pass on the floor in May after facing strong resistance from Democrats and some moderate Republicans, who opposed changes to the bill’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as opposition from members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus intent on forcing action on a separate immigration and border security bill. Republican leaders have until June 22 to reconsider the farm bill in the House under a procedural maneuver masterminded by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Ill.
The current farm bill expires Sept. 30.
During the farm bill process, the NGFA is encouraging senators to support reforms to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) embodied in the “Give Our Resources the Opportunity to Work” (GROW) Act. NGFA members have the opportunity to advocate for CRP reform here.