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Senate to end direct payments

Before laying out farm bill details, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) released a summary on Friday. 

As expected, the committee's draft of a bill ends direct payments. 

"Farmers will no longer be paid for crops they are not growing, will not be paid for acres that are not actually planted, and will not receive support absent a drop in price or yields," Stabenow's summary says. 

The bill will trim the federal deficit by $23 billion over ten years. 

It will consolidate two remaining farm programs into one "and will give farmers the ability to tailor risk management coverage," according to the summary.

The bill would expand farmers' access to crop insurance.

The bill will consolidate 23 existing conservation programs into 13, "while maintaining the existing tools farmers and landowners need to protect and conserve land, water and wildlife."

Stabenow's summary doesn't break down the cuts in various parts, or titles, of the farm bill. But earlier this week Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) said he expected the cuts to conservation programs to be similar to those proposed last fall. Those cuts trimmed $3.8 billion over 10 years from EQIP (the environmental quality incentives program) and CSP (the conservation stewardship program).

Harkin, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he's not happy with those cuts but will accept them. EQIP, CSP and the Conservation Reserve Program will remain USDA's biggest conservation programs in the Senate version of a new farm bill. Even with a strong farm economy, the size of the latest signup is surprising some USDA staff. 

The largest portion of farm bill spending, roughly 80%, goes to nutrition programs. The Senate won't cut food stamps as much as some members of the House of Representatives would like, but Stabenow is proposing some money-saving reforms, including:

  • While maintaining the existing tools farmers and landowners need to protect and conserve land, water and wildlife.

  • Stopping lottery winners from continuing to receive assistance.

  • Ending misuse by college students.

  • Cracking down on retailers and recipients engaged in benefit trafficking.

USDA's programs for rural economic development will be smaller, but they will include:

  • Expanding export opportunities and helping farmers develop new markets for their goods.

  • Investing in research to help commercialize new agricultural innovations.

  • Growing bio-based manufacturing (businesses producing goods in America from raw agricultural products grown in America) by allowing bio-manufacturers to participate in existing U.S. Department of Agriculture loan programs, expanding the BioPreferred labeling initiative, and strengthening a procurement preference so the U.S. government will select bio-based products when purchasing needed goods.

  • Spurring advancements in bio-energy production, supporting advanced biomass energy production such as cellulosic ethanol and pellets from woody biomass for power. 

Earlier this week, Stabenow told North American Agricultural Journalists that the farm bill will contain an energy title,  but some of its help for biofuels will be in the form of loan guarantees. And much of the spending for these programs will be authorized instead of mandatory spending. That leaves the job of finding money for authorized programs to the appropriations committees in Congress, potentially a tough task in today's fiscal environment. 

The bill will be amended when the Senate Agriculture Committee meets for mark-up next week. Stabenow and Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-KS) are planning to offer a package of amendments.

Here's the summary.

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