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Published June 10, 2013, 08:06 PM

Senate approves farm bill

Now comes the hard part: House passage.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

One down, one to go, area farm group leaders say.

As expected, the U.S. Senate on Monday approved 66-27 a new federal farm bill. That clears the way for the U.S. House to take up its own version of the legislation, possibly as early as this month. But farm group leaders worry that the farm bill ­ — the centerpiece of U.S. food and agricultural policy — faces a greater challenge in the House than it did in the Senate.

“The House looks like it’s going to be the real test,” said Brad Thykeston, a Portland, N.D., farmer and president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association.

Woody Barth, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, also said the House will pose the biggest obstacle.

His organization, on balance, is “very pleased” with the Senate action, he said. Though the legislation isn’t perfect, “It’s defensible.”

Doyle Johannes, an Underwood, N.D., farmer and president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, said Senate approval was only one step, albeit a good one.

“We need a new farm bill. But it’s still early. There’s a lot of work left to be done,” he said.

The Senate version has shortcomings, particularly its insistence on coupling crop insurance and conservation programs, he said.

Linking the two isn’t fair or realistic in North Dakota and other northern-tier states, Johannes said.

A half-trillion dollars

The Senate version approved Monday would spend about $500 billion, or $100 billion annually, over the next five years. All told, the new legislation would save about $2.4 billion annually on farm and nutrition spending, but would continue to subsidize the federal crop insurance program.

The program is especially important for Upper Midwest producers because of bad weather that regularly affects planting conditions and crop yields, area farm group officials say.

The U.S. government now pays about 60 percent of federal crop insurance premiums, with farmers picking up the rest.

Farmers say federal crop insurance would be too expensive if they paid all the premiums themselves. They also say the insurance helps maintain the stability of the U.S. food production system.

Area of contention

The biggest sticking point in the upcoming House deliberations on the farm bill appears to be spending on the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, according to the Associated Press.

The Senate version would cut spending by about $400 million, or half a percent, annually. The House bill would cut the program by about $2 billion, or 3 percent, annually, as well as making it more difficult for some people to qualify, the AP said.

The Senate and House now will try to reconcile the differences in their respective bills.

Darin Anderson, a Valley City, N.D., farmer and outgoing president of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, noted that the Senate passed a farm bill last year, too, only to see compromise efforts by the Senate and House break down.

“Let’s hope they’re successful this time. It’s important to agriculture and the country that they are,” he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., all voted Monday to approve the bill.

The four, in separate news releases, applauded Senate passage.

“Today’s bipartisan vote is a major step forward for a strong, long-term farm bill that is critical to moving our economy forward,” Klobuchar said.

Franken called the legislation “a very good outcome for Minnesota’s farmer, who need the certainty that comes with a five-year farm bill, and I’m pleased the Senate was able to get this done.”

The Senate bill, Hoeven said, “enables our farmers and ranchers to continue to provide American consumers with the highest quality, lowest cost food supply in the world.”

Heitkamp noted that the House still needs to pass the legislation.

Still, “Today is a great day for North Dakota agriculture,” she said.