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First Farm Bill Markup Expected Next Week

However, it’s a long way from markup to final passage

If you’re wondering what the 2018 farm bill might look like, you may get a chance next week on April 18. That’s if the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee releases its markup. However, there’s a big difference between the first markup being released and the 2018 farm bill being passed by Congress and signed by President Trump.

“Despite all the drama and focus on the House, it’s hard to see a farm bill emerging that would not follow the path we’ve seen before,” says Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research and Action Center. “There are lots of stakeholders in the traditional coalition that are ready to be aligned. I think there is still a pathway for a constructive farm bill that follows that path.”

Vollinger and others spoke at this year’s meeting of the North American Agricultural Journalists in Washington, D.C. The big stumbling block? Nutrition issues including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments (food stamps).

They’re a large part of the farm bill. Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX), who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, has proposed expanded work requirements and tighter eligibility rules for SNAP recipients. Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee have disagreed with that proposal.

“The farm bill is a safety net not only on the farm side but also on the nutrition side,” Vollinger adds. “It is a much more complicated narrative than is emerging from the House.”

Other Farm Bill Components

Meanwhile, many farmers are struggling with low commodity prices. “We would like to see more robust PLC (Price Loss Coverage) payments,” says Zach Clark, director of government relations for the National Farmers Union. “I have no indication that we will get that. Everything we are told is that there is no new money.”

Whatever new money that did exist is being consumed by tax cuts passed last year and spending increases that occurred this year. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the gap between outlays and revenues is projected to be persistently large. This imbalance is expected to cause federal debt held by the public to rise to nearly 100% of gross domestic product in a decade or so. 

Nevertheless, there still will be a farm bill. Clark says another crop insurance component in which NFU would like to see is Whole Farm Revenue Projection. “We can’t get it to stick in wide swaths of the country,” he says. However, he says small tweaks to programs like this would help farmers.

“We see crop insurance as the safety net for farmers,” says John Larson, executive director of programs for American Farmland Trust (AFT)  “But we also see it as an opportunity in how we steward the land.”  

One idea that’s been floated around is tying practices like no-till and cover corps that boost soil health and sequester carbon to crop insurance discounts. More data, though, on these practices and how they can tie together with crop insurance is needed, says Larson. He says AFT has worked with the Meridian Institute in a process called AGree.

“One of the things we realized is that when you think about crop insurance, adjustors in the field need certainty,” he says. “They need actuarial soundness.”

Currently, it’s not now possible on a sound actuarial basis to take data regarding soil health practices and tie it to crop insurance and potential discounts. That may change, though. Senator John Thune (R-SD) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN) have proposed an agricultural data act that would have the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Risk Management Agency, and Farm Services Agency compare data that can answer questions in relationship to what farmers are doing on their land.

This data now exists, says Larson. The bill would instruct the USDA Secretary to bring together the data to allow it to be used for purposes like crop insurance linkage to soil health practices, says Larson.  

Long Road

It will be a long way from the first markup by the House Agriculture Committee to passage of the farm bill.

"It's the old adage of everything we learned in politics, we learned in kindergarten,” says Larson. "We learned how to count. And right now, I don't think we get to 218 votes (in the House to pass a farm bill) in any size, shape, or form today.”

That’s just the start. After passage in the House, the farm bill goes to the U.S. Senate, followed by conference committees, before going to President Trump for his signature.

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