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Published May 16, 2013, 02:06 PM

Senate will debate farm bill May 21

The Senate is expected to begin debate May 21 on a new farm bill that the Senate Agriculture Committee approved on May 14.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — The Senate is expected to begin debate May 21 on a new farm bill that the Senate Agriculture Committee approved on May 14.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said May 16 that debate would begin the last week before the Senate takes a break for Memorial Day, but final votes might take place after it returns in early June.

The five-year bill would cost $955 billion over 10 years, but $23 billion less than if the programs in the 2008 farm bill were extended, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

It eliminates the $4.9 billion in direct payments that crop farmers have been getting whether prices are high or low; consolidates conservation programs; and makes a $4 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, which is projected to cost more than $700 billion over 10 years.

The Senate bill reauthorizes the sugar program and gives crop farmers a choice between two commodity-support programs: the Agricultural Risk Coverage Program which would make payments to farmers for shallow losses that are not covered by crop insurance; and the Adverse Market Payments Program which would make payments to farmers when prices fall below certain targeted levels. Northern farmers like what’s becoming known as ARC because it tops off the crop-insurance program they participate in, while Southern farmers, particularly rice and peanut growers, like AMP because they find it difficult to make crop insurance work for them.

Three Republican senators from the Plains — Pat Roberts of Kansas, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and John Thune of South Dakota — offered amendments on food stamps and commodities that a majority of the panel rejected.

Roberts, Johanns and Thune objected to the new target-price proposal that had not been included in the bill last year when Roberts was ranking member. Roberts made the case that target prices are out of date in a market-oriented era and that the target prices that have been set for rice and peanuts are too high. He and Johanns also said they fear that other countries could challenge the program in the World Trade Organization. Thune proposed eliminating target prices for all crops except rice and peanuts because those target prices are needed to guarantee the bill’s passage. Yet other committee members rejected all those proposals.

Crop insurance

The bill also ties eligibility for subsidized crop insurance to compliance with federal conservation standards, but does not impose any income limits on crop insurance premium subsidies. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., with the support of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., offered amendments to drop the conservation compliance provision, but he failed to get a majority for those amendments. National farm and conservation groups have reached agreement on the provision, but North Dakota farm groups don’t support it.

The committee passed the bill on a roll-call vote of 15-5. Roberts, Johanns, and Thune voted against the final bill. They were joined by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who opposes the cut to food stamps and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Other Upper Midwest senators on the committee including Hoeven, Heitkamp, and Democrats Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Max Baucus of Montana voted for it.

Heitkamp told Agweek in an interview before the committee considered the bill that at her farm forums in North Dakota she found opposition to tying crop insurance to conservation compliance and more enthusiasm for the ARC program than the for the target price proposal because the Senate version prices are too low for northern crops.

Heitkamp said North Dakota farmers understand the need to include that program with high target prices for rice and peanuts as a way to get southern votes for the bill, and that there could be “a lot of enthusiasm” for that program if it raised target prices. A similar program in the House bill does raise target prices for all crops.