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Senate OKs $867 billion farm bill

By Jim Spencer and Maya Rao • Dec 12, 2018 at 4:00 PM

WASHINGTON — Changes to a federal food program that could have left thousands of needy Americans hungry have been stripped from the 2018 five-year federal farm bill.

The $867 billion, 807-page legislation that emerged from a conference committee of the U.S. Senate and House on Monday night kills a controversial House-passed measure that would have required certain recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to work or spend 20 hours a week looking for a job in order to participate.

The attempt to alter SNAP sparked angry charges of insensitivity and became a flash point in competing bills passed by the House and Senate. In the end, the attempt to save $20 billion over the next decade by tightening eligibility for the program once known as food stamps foundered and disappeared from a conference-committee bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate Tuesday afternoon.

The bill now heads to the House, where representatives from agricultural states seem unlikely to endanger funding for farm programs in an ideological fight over a longstanding form of public aid. If it receives the House OK as well, then the farm bill will head to the President Trump’s desk to be signed into law.

The five-year farm bill also shores up dairy price supports, reaffirms sugar beet subsidies, guarantees crop insurance for farmers, funds mental health programs for those facing bad commodity prices, and deals with animal disease, agricultural loans and land conservation.

“This bipartisan bill is good for farmers, good for taxpayers, and good for Lake Erie,” Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) said. “I’m proud of our work to keep Lake Erie and Ohio waterways clean for the businesses, farmers and residents who rely on them, while also maintaining quality farmland for Ohio farmers.”

Brown, who is the first Ohioan to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in more than 40 years, said the bill includes his provisions to protect Lake Erie and water quality across the state of Ohio.

Among them is the bipartisan Give Our Resources the Opportunity to Work (GROW) Act, which will better utilize existing federal water programs to protect waterways and expand access to quality farmland, the senator said.

Brown, as a member of the committee tasked with reconciling the differences between the House and Senate versions of the 2018 Farm Bill, also noted these provisions in the legislation:

• Create a new Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) program to better promote water quality. This prioritizes enrolling lands in the Conservation Reserve Program that will best prevent runoff and protect water quality.

• Authorize advanced payments for beginning farmers as a part of the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). This program would reserve funding for conservation practices that protect drinking water.

• Include reforms to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which would prioritize cover crops and crop rotations.

• Authorize increased payments for the top 10 high-priority practices that protect the environment.

• Reform the Regional Conservation Partnership Program which Brown helped developed in the 2014 Farm Bill.

• Increase funding to preserve farmland for future generations.

“At the beginning of the year, I pledged to get the Farm Bill done, so that we could provide Ohio farmers with the certainty they deserve,” Brown said. “And I’m proud that this final bipartisan bill will do that. We secured important wins for Ohio dairy farmers, as well as soybean and corn farmers. This final bill protects funding for critical nutrition programs that feed Ohio families, makes historic investments in local foods, and continues to invest in programs to improve water quality in Lake Erie and across the state. Congress should move swiftly so that we can get this bill over the finish line.”

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also praised the legislation’s passage.

“Agriculture is one of Ohio’s most important industries, contributing more than $100 billion to our economy and putting food on the table for thousands of Ohio workers and people around the world,” Portman said. “This Farm Bill will help provide Ohio farmers with the certainty and predictability they deserve and promote economic development and job creation in our rural communities. Of particular importance to Ohio, it includes my amendments to promote rural broadband access and to ensure that Central State University in Wilberforce has access to federal funding under the Farm Bill like other 1890 land-grant institutions.

“This Farm Bill will also keep Lake Erie clean and our drinking water safe by increasing funding for many conservation programs used by Ohioans to reduce nutrient runoff into waters like Lake Erie,” Portman added. “This includes tripling funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) from $100 million to $300 million for the next five years. Finally, it prioritizes funding for addiction treatment for rural areas, another important step forward at the federal level in our effort to overcome the opioid crisis. I look forward to President Trump signing this legislation into law to support Ohio’s farmers and our agriculture industry.”

The final text of the Farm Bill Conference Report includes two amendments offered by Portman during Senate consideration of the bill in June, including:

• An amendment by Portman and Brown to ensure that Central State University in Wilberforce can access funding under the Farm Bill that is available for 1890 land-grant institutions. Central State University is currently unable to receive the same level of federal funding as other historically black colleges, and this amendment would ensure that all 1890 land-grant institutions are treated equal.

• An amendment by Portman and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) to promote rural community economic development, innovation, and broadband integration. Specifically, the Portman-Cortez Masto amendment would codify the Council on Rural Community Innovation to help promote policies that use technological innovation to resolve challenges related to health care, law enforcement, housing, and telecommunications. The amendment would also establish a Rural Broadband Integrated Working Group within the Council to identify regulatory barriers to broadband deployment, encourage public private partnerships, and support competition.

“We’re certainly excited,” said Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap, a member of the American Farm Bureau board, which voted unanimously Tuesday morning to support the bill.

Paap, a soybean and corn farmer from Blue Earth County, plans to spend the week in the nation’s capital encouraging members of the Minnesota delegation and others to vote for passage. Failure to act thus far has put some programs on hold.

Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith of Minnesota, both Democrats and members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, blessed the conference committee bill enthusiastically and voted for it in their chamber Tuesday afternoon.

“I hope this could be a little bit of a model for what we can accomplish in a bipartisan way going forward,” Smith told the Star Tribune in an interview. “Agriculture traditionally has not been such a partisan issue, and the fact that we are able to accomplish so much for so many people is really an important example of what we need to be doing more of in Washington, D.C.”

Smith praised the preservation of SNAP, saying that 15 million Americans are experiencing food insecurity. “Realizing that the food stamp program mostly serves seniors, parents and grandparents and millions of children across the country — I think this is really important.”

Klobuchar characterized the conference committee farm bill as a “bipartisan achievement” that provided “a strong safety net for farmers” while simultaneously protecting people in need from going hungry. She had urged immediate passage of the bill.

The conference committee bill now goes to the House, where Republican Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota hopes for quick passage.

“The changes for dairy farmers and inclusion of the STRESS Act to make mental health resources more available for these folks are especially positive,” Emmer said in a statement. “Farmers are looking to Congress to provide certainty in uncertain times and I hope this bipartisan legislation gets across the finish line soon.”

The major sticking point between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill was a mandate that adults 18-49 with children over 6 and people 50-60 years old work or spend 20 hours a week job hunting in order to receive supplemental nutrition assistance.

Nutrition programs account for 80 percent of the farm bill. House Republicans who pushed the work restriction called it an incentive to help people better themselves. House Democrats, including Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, said it would deny food to people in need for no good reason. Advocates for the poor said cutting $20 billion from SNAP over the next decade would contribute to hunger in the U.S.

The Senate rebuked the House with an overwhelming bipartisan vote for a farm bill that touted its commitment to SNAP. The conference committee took out the work requirement in exchange for job-training programs.

Republican staff members acknowledged that their caucus had “a lot of passion” for the work requirement. The conference committee talks included a “long, drawn out conversation” on the subject, they said. But they added that House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway was willing to “compromise in conference” because in conference negotiators “find middle ground.”

The conference report specifies money for employment and training programs aimed at people over 50, as well as homeless people, those who were once in jail, those who are in substance-abuse treatment programs, and “households with multigenerational poverty.” There is language that allows new pilot programs to fight fraud. Additionally, there is an incentive program for retailers who sell healthy food to SNAP recipients.

“When the House put forward that (work) proposal, people saw that as grossly unfair and … when (the farm bill) went to the Senate it was received much more reasonably,” said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota. “I commend them for coming to an agreement.”

She said that advocates get nervous every time the farm bill comes up because the federal government is the largest funder of hunger relief in the country. Moriarty noted that 438,000 Minnesotans are on SNAP — largely seniors, children and those with disabilities — and just 5,000 of those are able-bodied, childless adults. She and other advocates feared that people would be forced to look for work when it was inappropriate for them.

Christine Pulver, director of the basic needs program at Keystone Community Services, which operates several food shelves in Minnesota, said Keystone saw its highest demand in history for emergency food in October, the latest month for which information was available.

Among the bigger challenges on the farming side of the bill was finding a way to help America’s sagging dairy industry. It came with better protections for farms of all sizes, the Minnesota Farm Bureau’s Papp said.

Peterson, recognized as one of Congress’ leading authorities on dairy policy, pushed new insurance provisions that he said “offer more flexible coverage for lower cost when dairy farmers need it most.”

Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, one of the largest Midwestern cooperatives, greeted the new provisions with a “sigh of relief,” Edge board President Brody Stapel said in a statement.

“Dairy farmers are hurting and have been hanging on in hopes of something positive,” Stapel explained. “And this bill delivers improvements.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Norwalk Reflector staff and Star Tribune Staff writer Adam Belz contributed to this story.


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