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A Farm Bill Checklist

The leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees use two catchwords, certainty and predictability, when they describe the 2018 farm bill. They’re talking about legislation that tweaks rather than overhauls the commodity, conservation, and crop insurance provision of the 2014 farm law, leaving aside the high-decibel fights over tougher work requirements for food stamps.

An evolutionary farm bill could boil down to a couple of choices for farmers: Whether to stay in ARC or switch to PLC, and whether to try to enroll some land in the CRP. Those options are common to farm bills written in both chambers, which suggests they will be part of the final version sent to the president.

Farmers would get a one-time choice between ARC and PLC, just like the 2014 law, under the House and Senate bills. Analysts expect a stampede to PLC. Both bills would expand CRP, now capped at 24 million acres. The Senate would raise the ceiling to 25 million acres and the House to 29 million acres. Rental rates would be scaled back from current levels, to 88.5% of the county average in the Senate bill and 80% in the House.

“This is the best bill possible,” said Chairman Pat Roberts, when the Senate Agriculture Committee approved, 20-1, on June 13 the status-quo bill that he wrote in collaboration with Debbie Stabenow, the senior Democrat on the panel. They aimed for a bill that would pass the Senate by a large margin and keep Congress on track to enact the 2018 bill before current law expires on September 30. The House hit a pothole with its farm bill in May before the bill was passed with a second vote on June 21. “Commodity prices are low. We need to move this bill to help them (farmers),” said Senator John Hoeven (R-ND). 

But a status-quo bill – there is no money for new farm bill initiatives – may be a ho-hum bill in the eyes of producers. Four out of 10 producers in a Purdue poll said the 2014 farm law is not effective in providing a financial safety net; 25% rated it as effective. Farmers were slightly kinder about ARC and PLC: 25% said the programs provided an effective safety net, 32% said ARC and PLC were not effective, and 43% rated them neutral. Crop insurance was the most popular tool. Some 65% of respondents in the Purdue poll who bought crop insurance this year said it provided an effective safety net.

USDA is more likely to offer a general CRP sign-up or two over the next five years if the House prevails with a 5-million-acre expansion, said small-farm advocate Ferd Hoefner. “The big question,” he said, “with greatly reduced rental rates” is whether landowners will respond.

Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) were thwarted in attempts at the committee level to restore the luster of ARC, the bright new idea for farm policy early this decade. ARC will become “unworkable” without an update, said Thune. If he’s right, crop insurance would be the only viable revenue-protection tool.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

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