Senate Ag passes farm bill with Cuba, farm loan, energy, dairy amendments
The Senate Agriculture Committee passed a five-year farm bill on June 13 after adopting amendments to allow the use of trade promotion programs in Cuba, to raise the limits on government farm loans and to give Agriculture Department energy programs mandatory funding.
The vote was 20-1 because Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wouldn’t vote for the bill. Grassley hoped to offer a payment limits amendment in committee, but ran into procedural problems.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who holds a seat on the committee but rarely attends meetings, showed up to announce that he wants the bill finished on the Senate floor before the Senate leaves on June 29 for its July 4 break.
Senators filed a total of 196 amendments to the bill, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told reporters, but 66 were incorporated into a manager’s amendments while some were offered and others were withdrawn.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., offered an amendment that she and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., sponsored to authorize USDA Market Access Program and USDA Foreign Market Development Program funding to go toward trade servicing, technical assistance and trade promotion activities in Cuba.
Although it is legal to sell U.S. agricultural products in Cuba, financing is complicated and the use of USDA promotion programs is not allowed.
Roberts noted that farmers see increased exports as a way out of the current low commodity prices, and the committee voted for it unanimously by voice vote.
“The loosening of the embargo on Cuba was a major step in creating demand for U.S. ag imports on the island, but we can do much more to support profitable agricultural trade with Cuba,” Heitkamp said in a news release. “North Dakota farmers view Cuba as a natural market for our homegrown products like dry edible beans, peas, and lentils — and our bipartisan amendment gives USDA the ability to build reliable trade partnerships between North Dakota producers and Cuban buyers, at no extra cost to the taxpayer. Our effort would help support North Dakota’s farm families and rural communities, especially as they face uncertainty with tariffs and the renegotiation of NAFTA.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., offered an amendment to make funding for the USDA energy programs mandatory and to reimburse farmers for their cost of buying insurance through the Margin Protection Program in its early years. The MPP was not considered a success and through other provisions the senate farm bill reworks it and provides it more money.
The money for Klobuchar’s amendment would come through cuts to an economic adjustment for the cotton program. Boozman opposed the use of the cotton program to pay for the amendment, saying that 44 companies in 14 states participate in the program. The amendment passed on a voice vote, but voices of dissent could be heard. Roberts said he would work with Klobuchar and Boozman on the source of funding for the energy and MPP programs.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., claimed credit for the dairy provision, which she said in a news release originated in her Dairy Premium Refund Act and would return $77.1 million in insurance premiums paid by dairy farmers from 2015 to 2017 for a program “that left them empty-handed when milk prices plummeted.”
The committee also approved unanimously by voice vote an amendment offered by Klobuchar and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., to tighten up the sodsaver provisions in the six prairie pothole states currently in the program and to allow governors in other states to opt into the program.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition thanked Klobuchar and Thune for sponsoring the sodsaver amendment, which the group noted limits grassland loss by reducing crop insurance premium subsidies on land that is broken out from native prairie.
NSAC also thanked Klobuchar for offering a second degree amendment to one offered by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., to double loan limits for Farm Service Agency Direct and Guaranteed Farm Ownership and Operating Loans. NSAC maintains that the original Hoeven amendment “would have severely disadvantaged beginning and historically underserved farmers and limited their access to vital credit and loan opportunities.”
Farm and credit groups have asked Congress to raise the limits on the size of guaranteed and direct loans because farm operations have gotten bigger. Under the Hoeven-Klobuchar amendment that the committee approved, the loan limits for both guaranteed operating and ownership loans would be raised from the current cap of $1.39 million to $1.75 million. The amendment would also lift the cap on direct ownership loans from $300,000 to $600,000 and on direct operating loans from $300,000 to $400,000.
Thune also wanted to offer amendments to make improvements to the Agriculture Risk Coverage program and the Conservation Reserve Program, but ran into troubles with both of them.
Thune noted that after the 2014 farm bill gave farmers a choice between signing up for the Price Loss Coverage program or the Agriculture Risk Coverage program, 77 percent chose ARC. Thune pointed out that ARC protects against income and production losses. But PLC makes payments based on reference prices for commodities while ARC payments are based on an income average that is going down as farm incomes decrease. The senate farm bill contains some provisions to make ARC more attractive, but Thune and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, wanted more changes. Thune said he attempted to write an amendment but got a Congressional Budget Office score on its cost only late Tuesday night and that he could not come up with an amendment that sticks within the budget and would accomplish their goals.
Thune also brought up an amendment that would raise the level of acreage idled under the Conservation Reserve Program from the current level of 24 million acres and the senate draft bill’s 25 million acres to 26.25 million acres and changes some CRP management practices. Thune would accomplish the increase in acreage by lowering general CRP rental rates from the 88.5 percent of the county average to 85 percent, while leaving continuous CRP rental rates at 88.5 percent. But Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said she was opposed to reducing rental rates further. Thune maintained that farm and wildlife groups were in favor of his proposal, but Stabenow said the National Wildlife Federation is not. Thune withdrew his amendment after Roberts promised to try to address some of his CRP issues before the bill goes to the floor.
McConnell praised the committee for including his Hemp Farming Act, which would repeal roadblocks to growing hemp. The senate bill would repeal hemp’s classification as a drug. The 2014 farm bill allowed research on hemp, and McConnell noted that Kentucky farmers are very interested in it as a replacement for tobacco.
Grassley said he believed that the proper committee to consider hemp legislation is the Senate Judiciary Committee that he chairs, and said the hemp section of the bill is too broad because it will allow certain medicines to be made from hemp. McConnell replied that he had written his bill after consultation with the Justice Department, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration and that he would not favor changes that “would undercut the essential premise of the bill — that it should be a legal agricultural commodity as it was for many years.”
Gillibrand said she may offer a floor amendment to exempt caregivers from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program work requirements. Caregivers for family members, Gillibrand said, are working but are not compensated.
Gillibrand said she may also offer a floor amendment on pollinators.
At a news conference after the vote, Roberts and Stabenow said they will stand united as they bring the bill to the Senate floor.
A Senate Agriculture Committee spokeswoman released a list of the senators whose amendments were included in the manager’s amendment and said that all the amendments will be posted to the committee website. ❖