OMAHA (DTN) -- Conferees on the farm bill understand the economic challenges facing farmers and want to get a farm bill done to provide certainty -- a popular word among them -- to farmers and rural America.
Leading lawmakers on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees met in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, committing to get a farm bill done by Sept. 30; however, many of the conferees had significant reservations about specific provisions or differences between the House and Senate bills.
"Getting a farm bill done is paramount to any other issue or concern," said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who is working on his eighth farm bill. Roberts said he is committed to compromise.
Roberts adjourned the meeting after more than three hours of speeches from the 56 lawmakers, which includes nine senators and 47 House members. It's now likely remaining talks to complete a farm bill will include largely staff and a handful of principal lawmakers seeking compromises.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, pointed to the 13% decline in farm income for 2018, which was forecast by USDA last week. Conaway and several others cited how different the state of the farm economy is in 2018 compared to 2013 and early 2014 when Congress last completed a farm bill. Conaway also detailed some key farmer priorities.
"There is much in the farm bill that is worth protecting -- and there are also some critical mission areas that need improving," Conaway said. "Beyond protecting crop insurance, I would submit that at a time when there is so much uncertainty for farmers and ranchers, including on the trade front, that this conference committee should do absolutely nothing in regard to trade promotion and food aid programs that would inflict harm on our farmers and ranchers."
Most House Republicans on Thursday defended changes to the work and job-training changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Conaway, though, acknowledged differences on SNAP in the two bills and said there is room for compromise.
"Even on SNAP, I have repeatedly stressed that we are willing and able to come to consensus with the Senate," Conaway said.
Democrats, however, countered that the farm bill provides both a safety net for farmers and one for families. Costs of the program are $80 billion less than projected over 10 years than was forecast during the last farm bill, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., pointed out. SNAP cuts and other burdensome paperwork for food-aid recipients, "makes no sense to me," she said.
Stabenow also pointed out that the country produces more than just commodity crops. "From corn and soybeans to specialty crops and organics, the strength of our agricultural economy is rooted in the diversity of what we grow," she said.
Democrats argued that the farm bill shouldn't make it harder for poor in the wealthiest nation in the world to eat. Pointing to the changes in the House bill, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, "I'm afraid what is in there could exacerbate hunger."
Republicans argued the U.S. economy is booming, there are 6 million job openings nationally and the SNAP changes in the House version of the farm bill would provide training and a chance for more people to work. "We owe it to the people SNAP serves to be bold and approve these outcomes," said Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, pointed out he could not remember the last time he named himself to a conference committee. He said a farm bill is needed by the end of September to avoid expiration of farm legislation. If that doesn't happen, he said, "This is going to be a bipartisan failure noted by the farmers and ranchers of our country." McConnell said he was "particularly excited about industrial hemp" provisions he included in the bill.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, also reiterated he wanted to get a farm bill done and signed by the president.
"I'll remind our conferees that should be our goal and their goal as well," Peterson said. "Nobody in this room is going to get everything he or she wants; this process is about compromise."
The farm economy weighed heavy on the need to get a bill done quickly.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., still noted, "We haven't really talked about the elephant in the room, which is the growing and emerging crisis in farm country. Like a lot of you, I have sat across the table from farm families who don't know they're going to pay the operating loan, who don't know how they going to make ends meet."
Heitkamp pointed to both weather, such as drought, that has hit farmers in some areas, and to the crisis farmers are now dealing with due to "trade policies that challenge their soul," she said.
Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said, "Cash commodity prices are essentially half of what they were when we last met" for a farm bill conference.
When lawmakers were last wrapping up the farm bill in late 2013, cash corn prices were falling but hovered around $4 an acre after running above $6 a bushel in the summer of 2013, compared to $3.24 a bushel now. Cash soybean prices in late 2013 were in the $12.50- to $13-per-bushel range, compared to $7.47 now, as DTN's National Soybean Index states.
Lucas pointed to the need to increase the Conservation Reserve Program acreage from its current 24-million-acre cap. The Senate bill bumps up the acreage from 24 million acres to 25 million, compared to plans to go to 29 million acres in the House bill, and each adjusts rental rates.
"We need to send a signal to commodity traders that we're not going to be at these production levels forever," Lucas said.
House Republicans also made their case for eliminating new enrollments in the Conservation Stewardship Program and rolling some of its aspects into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said the House version of the farm bill continues consolidation of conservation programs that began in 2008. Goodlatte called the merger of CSP into EQIP as a "signature provision" of the House bill. Democrats countered that CSP is needed as a stand-alone program to "improve soil health and water quality in places like the Great Lakes," as Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, said.
Southern Republicans questioned changes to actively engaged rules in the Senate bill and a lowering of the adjusted gross income eligibility for farmers, going from $900,000 under current law to $700,000 AGI. They backed a broader definition of family farm in the House version of the bill.
"A sudden death in the family can unravel a family farm that's been running for generations," said Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La. "And I support including nieces, nephews and cousins in the definition of actively engaged."
Multiple Republicans also said the farm bill should include the House language to repeal the 2015 Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineer rule from the Clean Water Act, which is known as waters of the U.S., or WOTUS. EPA has tried to withdraw the rule, but it remains in effect in roughly half the country because of court rulings.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle also championed more funding and work to improve rural broadband access, as well as create and fund a vaccine bank to protect the livestock industry.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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