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Published January 24, 2014, 10:22 AM

New farm bill expected in February

Congress is close to passing a new farm bill and could reach an agreement in the next few weeks, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said Jan. 21.

By: Jonathan Knutson and Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

Congress is close to passing a new farm bill and could reach an agreement in the next few weeks, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said Jan. 21.

Heitkamp was in Grand Forks, N.D., to tour the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center. The facility, which describes its mission as “strengthening the evidence base for food and nutrition policy,” is authorized by the farm bill.

Senators and House members are scheduled to return to Washington in time for President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address the evening of Jan. 28. That would mean any action in the House either in a conference committee with the Senate or on the floor would have to take place on Jan. 29 because the House will adjourn that day so Republican members can go on their annual retreat. That schedule has led to speculation that action on the bill will be delayed until the first week of February.

Heitkamp, in brief remarks to the news media in Grand Forks, said Congress is on “the 1-yard line” in passing a new farm bill. She said she’s frustrated that getting a new farm bill has taken so long. Cattle producers, in particular, have suffered because of the delay, she said.

The dairy program, country-of-origin labeling for red meat and payment limitations appear to be the important remaining issues in the bill.

Farm bill conferees did not reach agreement on what is being called “the Lucas margin insurance bill,” a dairy lobbyist told Agweek in reference to the bill developed by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he would not allow a bill with what he considers supply management to come to the House floor.

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told reporters before Congress left town that he believed an agreement he could support was near, but he later pulled back from that statement, saying there was no agreement.

Congress has worked since 2011 to approve a new farm bill, the centerpiece of U.S. food and agricultural policy.

The new bill

Now, it’s increasingly important to consider how the farm bill, once approved, will be implemented, said Heitkamp, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The next farm bill almost certainly will allow fewer acres to be enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, according to Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

The new farm bill likely will cap CRP at 24 million, down from 32 million acres in the 2008 farm bill, he said.

Heitkamp, asked by Agweek about CRP, said she also thinks fewer acres will be allowed under the new farm bill.

But she noted that many farmers have withdrawn land voluntarily from CRP in recent years, limiting the impact of a lower acreage cap.

Thune has also said he’s working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “maximize the opportunity for wildlife production” in CRP.

COOL

In another farm bill development, 98 groups representing a wide range of interests sent a letter to the Farm Bill Conference Committee emphasizing their support for the country of origin labeling (COOL) law.

R-CALF USA, one of the groups, said in a news release there were reports that the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative was lobbying the conference committee to weaken COOL.

Farmers and ranchers “overwhelmingly support” the 2011 COOL rules, which require retailers to inform consumers as to where the animal from which the meat was derived was born, raised, and slaughtered, according to R-CALF USA.

Jess Peterson of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, another group that favors COOL, noted that USTR and USDA have previously said that the COOL issue is being handled within the WTO appeals process.

“USCA remains steadfast in its position that COOL is currently being worked out within the WTO process,” Peterson said. “Any legislative changes offered up in the farm bill with regards to COOL are unwarranted and not helpful — and quite frankly jeopardize overall passage of the bill.”

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