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Heitkamp bill would fine tune farm safety net program

WASHINGTON — A bill introduced in Congress on Tuesday, Oct. 24, could provide guidance to fine tune a farm safety net program.

In 2014, so few farmers in Logan and LaMoure counties in North Dakota filled out National Agricultural Statistics Service surveys that a county yield couldn't be determined for the purpose of the Agriculture Risk Coverage-County Level program, says Aaron Krauter, former Farm Service Agency director for North Dakota.

"Farmers are reluctant sometimes to fill out surveys. In some counties you don't have enough data to get a county yield," he explains.

According to the FSA, ARC-CO payments are issued when the actual county crop revenue of a covered commodity is less than the ARC-CO guarantee for the covered commodity.

The numbers that were used as yield averages for Logan and LaMoure counties in lieu of NASS data was higher than many farmers thought was correct — and high enough to knock them out of coverage for that year under the ARC-CO program.

"I think the Congressional intent was missed on some of this," says John Weinand, president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association. "Some people fell through the cracks."

The bill introduced by Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, would provide some legislative fixes to problems farmers have faced with ARC-CO.

"As I've met with producers across our state over the past few months, they have made clear that improvements are necessary to programs like ARC-CO that help our agriculture community get through challenges like drought and low commodity prices," a statement from Heitkamp says.

The bill would direct FSA to use Risk Management Agency data, derived from crop insurance policies, as the first choice in yield calculations. As Krauter explains, most farmers carry crop insurance, so getting the RMA numbers are more reliable than the survey-based NASS numbers.

"I don't know many farmers — actually, I don't know any farmers who don't carry crop insurance," Krauter says.

Weinand says there are "too many shortfalls" with using NASS data. The introduced bill contains solutions farm groups have been asking of North Dakota's congressional delegation, he says.

"In North Dakota, we have people who listen to us," he says.

Another change in the bill would put into law that safety net payments are made in the physical counties where farms are located. Prior to 2015, payments were based on the single county a producer used for administrative purposes, even if actual fields were in multiple counties. So a farmer who lives on a county line and has land in both counties may get payments not in line with actual conditions.

"Wherever that land is located physically is where those payments should be based off of," Krauter says.

Heitkamp and others in 2015 successfully lobbied the USDA to allow farmers to be paid based on the physical field location, but the introduced bill would put that change into law rather than an administrative option.

"(T)his legislation will work to ensure the data and process used by the Farm Service Agency to determine payments to our farmers are not unfairly affected by state or federal boundaries that have no bearing on a farm's yield," a statement from Ernst says.

The bill also would give FSA state committees discretion to adjust yield data estimates to help reduce variation among neighboring counties or along boundaries with neighboring states. Those adjustments would be made prior to yields being finalized or published.

"So if there's a big difference from one county to the next, the state office can fix it and say, 'This county should qualify as well,'" Wienand explains.

Krauter says that's an important change that would allow for more input to make sure payments are fair and correct.

The bill has broad support in agriculture, from the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union, as well as state and national commodity groups.

As Weinand explains, the bill is a "marker bill," containing information to be considered in the next farm bill.

"The '14 Farm Bill was written well, and these are just things to make it better," Krauter says.