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Published February 07, 2014, 03:03 PM

A sigh of relief: Farm bill signed into law

On Feb. 7, President Barack Obama signed a long-awaited five-year farm bill — the Agricultural Act of 2014 — in a ceremony at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

By: Jonathan Knutson and Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

EAST LANSING, Mich. — On Feb. 7, President Barack Obama signed a long-awaited five-year farm bill — the Agricultural Act of 2014 — in a ceremony at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

“Congress passed a bipartisan farm bill that is going to make a big difference in communities throughout the country,” Obama said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., traveled with Obama and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., to Michigan for the signing, but House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., did not attend, even though he played a major role in writing the bill. Peterson’s district is conservative and Peterson has distanced himself from Obama through most of his presidency. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla. and Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who face primary elections against tea party challengers, also declined to attend.

American Crystal Sugar Co. CEO David Berg was among the attendees.

U.S. farmers and farm group leaders aren’t entirely happy with the next farm bill, but they’re pleased to have one.

“Finally. This has been in the works for so long,” said Bruce Schmoll, a Claremount, Minn., farmer. He’s active in the state Soybean Growers Association and also serves as secretary and treasurer of the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

Doyle Johannes, an Underwood, N.D., farmer and president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, made the same point.

“It’s good to be done with this,” he said.

Farmers and farm group leaders talked with Agweek on Feb. 4, shortly after the U.S. Senate passed the 949-page legislation on a 68-32 vote. The U.S. House had previously approved the legislation, clearing the way for Obama to sign it into law on Feb. 7.

The Senate action was the culmination of years, of effort by area and national farm groups.

“I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief. I’ve been doing nothing but work on this for two years,” said Chris Christiaens, legislative and project specialist with the Montana Farmers Union.

The farm bill, the centerpiece of federal food and agricultural policy, is supposed to be passed every five years. But it’s more than a year overdue because, until recently, congressional negotiators couldn’t reach a compromise. Some farm groups have worked for several years to shape the legislation.

Good, on balance

The new farm bill, on balance, is good for farmers and ranchers, and farm group leaders.

The many positive aspects of the legislation include crop insurance, disaster aid for livestock and funding for beginning farmers and ranchers, they say.

Maintaining federal crop insurance was a priority for Montana grain growers, and the new farm bill includes several improvements to it, Matt Flikkema, president of the Minnesota Grain Growers Association, said in a news release.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said enhanced federal crop insurance is particularly important for ag producers.

Continuation of the U.S. sugar program also is a victory for U.S. farmers, particularly ones in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota, Hoeven said.

He said he understands and shares the frustration of U.S. farmers and ranchers with the long delay in approving a new farm bill. But arriving at realistic compromises on important issues took time, he said.

Differing priorities of U.S. farmers based on geography — whether they farm in the Upper Midwest, southern states or the Corn Belt — contributed to the difficulty, Hoeven said.

Strengthening federal crop insurance is particularly important, Kevin Paap, a Garden City, Minn., farmer and president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said in a news release.

He praised the farm bill as “fiscally responsible.”

The new farm bill enjoys strong bipartisan support, which is good for both farmers and the country in general, said Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union.

The certainty of a new farm bill will help farmers and ranchers make better decisions, he said.

Wayne Smith, executive director of the South Dakota Farm Bureau, also cited the security that a new farm bill will give ag producers.

Many western South Dakota cattle producers were hammered by an early October blizzard, so the farm bill’s provision for livestock disaster assistance is particularly welcome, he said.

The South Dakota Farm Bureau is disappointed, however, that the farm bill doesn’t have a stronger livestock insurance program, he said.

Some disagreement

The massive farm bill “has both good points and bad points,” Johannes said.

For instance, the North Dakota Farm Bureau, among other organizations, doesn’t like that the farm bill leaves country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, intact. That leaves the U.S. open to retaliation from Canada and other trading partners, he said.

Schmoll, in his role with the U.S. Meat Export Federation, also said leaving COOL was a mistake.

Leaving COOL intact in the farm bill also has its supporters, who say U.S. consumers need to know where their meat comes from.

Montana ranchers benefit from keeping COOL in place, Christiaens said.

Ressa Charter, a Shepherd, Mont., rancher and member of the National Plains Resource Council, said in a news release that COOL helps protect independent farmers and livestock producers.

The farm bill linked conservation compliance and the federal crop insurance program, another area of disagreement among agriculturalists.

Peterson said the connection is fair and reasonable, a view shared by many in agriculture.

Hoeven said he worked to mitigate the effect of the link on farmers. For example, the requirement will not be retroactive.

The $956 billion legislation is expected to save either $16.6 billion or $23 billion, depending on the scoring method used, over 10 years compared with current funding.

Roughly $8 billion of the savings come from food stamps, officially known the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That’s less than the $40 billion in cuts House Republicans wanted and double what Senate Democrats had supported.

SNAP accounts for more than three-quarters of the bill’s spending. The programs help about 47 million low-income people buy food.

The new farm bill will run through 2018. So farmers and farm group officials will begin working on the next five-year farm bill in 2016, Christiaens said.

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