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Senate passes 2018 Farm Bill compromise, House vote expected as soon as Wednesday

WASHINGTON -- After months of back-and-forth and missing their Sept. 30 re-authorization deadline, the U.S. House and Senate has finally come to an agreement on a nearly $900 billion 2018 Farm Bill.

In a race to get the bill to President Donald Trump's desk before the end of the 115th Congress, the Senate voted on the package 87-13 Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 11, and it could head to the House for its approval as soon as Wednesday. The bill package allocates $867 billion federal dollars over 10 years.

The pressure is on for Congress to pass the legislation as the agricultural economy faces steady decline and struggles to brave the storm of retaliatory tariffs imposed as part of Trump's trade war. Trump claims farmers' current burdens will ultimately pay off with better trade agreements, and the federal government authorized a $12 billion bailout in July to assist in farmers' losses.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said Tuesday, "Passage of the 2018 Farm Bill cannot come soon enough for American family farmers and ranchers, who need the certainty of the farm bill safety net to continue to weather the worst farm economy decline in more than 30 years."

He called the compromise legislation "a critical step" and said NFU "strongly urge[s] Congress to approve the farm bill before the end of the year."

In the fight to reach consensus, lawmakers sparred over House Republicans' push to alter the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by imposing work requirements for food stamps beneficiaries aged 49 to 59 and those with children aged 6 to 12. The Senate did not include such SNAP changes, and, to the relief of Democrats and liberal groups, neither does the compromise expected to get a vote.

With 60 votes in the Senate required and a narrow Republican majority, the bill needs support from some Democratic senators in order to reach the finish line. According to SNAP, over 45 million Americans as of January 2016 were enrolled in SNAP benefits.

House Republicans do appear to have won one of their battles: Tuesday's legislation includes provisions introduced in the House version that expand federal farm subsidies to first cousins, nieces and nephews of farmers, even if they do not work directly on the farm. House Republicans say this provision is aimed to encourage more to enter the agriculture sector.

Also aimed to build the agricultural workforce, the package includes Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Sen. Susan Collins' (R-Maine) Next Generation in Agriculture Act, which would allocate funding for beginner farming and ranching programs and devote USDA resources to young farmers.

The compromise also legalizes hemp production, which, according to CNBC, could balloon to a $20 billion industry by 2022. Hemp production is currently permitted only for licensed farmers in Minnesota, is under a pilot program for licensed farmers in North Dakota and is prohibited in South Dakota (though there have been some recent efforts to change that).

Tuesday's version also maintains the Conservation Stewardship Program, which awards payments to farmers for their conservation efforts and was threatened in the House version. The compromise also increases acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program and includes an act sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to encourage forest management and preservation.

Here's what leaders around the Upper Midwest had to say about Tuesday's conference report:

Minnesota

Minnesota’s lawmakers celebrated the 2018 Farm Bill’s progress through Congress, noting pieces that could provide needed relief for farmers. Both Minnesota senators voted to advance the proposal.

“This bill is a strong start to addressing the issues our producers are facing right now, particularly our dairy farmers,” U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said in a statement. “It’s the product of strong bipartisan work in both the House and the Senate, and it’s something I’m proud to encourage folks to vote for.”

The proposal would allow dairy operations to cover margins up to $9.50 and offer partial premium repayments to dairy farmers that’d previously been enrolled in the Margin Protection Program.

“From providing a safety net for farmers and ranchers, to supporting dairy farmers, to implementing important conservation provisions and promoting precision agriculture, this Farm Bill shows our farmers and ranchers that we stand with them, we support them, and we want them to succeed,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in a statement.

And the measure can offer some certainty after a year that yielded a series of blows for producers, said Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn.

“Farmers and ranchers — who face enough uncertainty with low farm prices and trade uncertainties — deserve the certainty that this bipartisan Farm Bill provides,” Smith said.

North Dakota

North Dakota's congressional delegation, all three of whom were tapped as farm bill negotiators, welcomed the final product Tuesday.

“Our producers need the certainty that comes with the passage of a five-year farm bill,” Republican Sen. John Hoeven said in a statement. “This long-term farm bill provides producers with the tools they need to succeed now and in the coming years.”

Heitkamp said the final bill mirrors the Senate’s version “with a few minor tweaks.” She said it “rebuffs many of the purely partisan provisions in the House version.”

Heitkamp said it was particularly important to pass the legislation amid the Trump administration’s trade war in order to give “much-needed peace of mind for the rural economy, a robust safety net for growers, and expanded — not limited — access to important global markets for our producers.”

Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, who will replace Heitkamp next year after a contentious Senate race, said the legislation isn’t perfect, but it “provides farmers, ranchers and rural Americans the certainty and stability they deserve.”

South Dakota

Republican Sen. John Thune, a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, said in a Tuesday statement, "Getting a pro-agriculture, pro-farmer farm bill to the president has been the goal all along, and I’m glad we’re one step closer to delivering on it."

Thune called said the bill package was "literally two years in the making,” adding, "While there were significant policy differences between the House and Senate bills, it’s good to see negotiators [...] were able to reach an agreement. "

Republican Sen. Mike Rounds said in a Tuesday statement, "At a time when farm income is down 50 percent and our producers are at the tip of the spear with the ongoing trade disputes, passage of a five-year farm bill is a critical step toward providing our ag community with much needed certainty and stability."

Republican Rep.-elect Dusty Johnson, who will take office in January, told Forum News Service Tuesday he doesn't think the package is perfect, but "It’s an improvement over what we’ve had over the last five years."

Echoing Rounds, Johnson added, "Most importantly, I think it gives South Dakota producers the predictability they need."

Johnson said he would have liked to see the bill make SNAP work requirements "more robust" for non-senior, able-bodied people without children, adding that he'd like to see "more accountability in the nutrition program."

Republican outgoing Rep. and Gov.-elect Kristi Noem did not comment on the bill Tuesday. A representative for Noem said she plans to issue a comment following the House's vote Wednesday.

-Forum News Service reporters Dana Ferguson in Minnesota and John Hageman in North Dakota contributed to this report

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