Ag leaders, lawmakers optimistic

Great Falls Tribune

by Jo Dee Black

Tester hopeful the farm bill will pass by mid-December

If the farm bill passes this year, and those closely involved are optimistic that will happen, farmers will spend more time in their insurance agent’s office than at the Farm Service Agency office, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

“The safety net for farmers will be in the form of federal crop insurance and not direct payments,” he said. “That’s what the Senate farm bill proposed, and I think it was a good bill. It got held up when when the House cut the nutrition title (low-income food programs) to the bone, and that was not right. But I do think we will get the farm bill passed by mid-December.”

The farm bill includes agriculture conservation, crop insurance and price support programs, as well as low-income food programs such as SNAP, formerly called food stamps, and school lunches.

The current program is an extension of the last farm bill.

Although fights over the nutrition title in Congress received a lot of attention, farm groups are working to preserve safety nets they say are needed to protect producers where prices are low or disasters such as drought hurt crop and livestock production.

Direct payments are payments made to the owners of farm land and are based on the average production of the land. The payments are a target of some critics who object to the payments for wealthy and corporate farm operations.

“In the Senate, we are under extreme pressure not to include direct payments in the farm bill,” Joe Schultz, chief economist for the U.S. Senate Ag Committee, told attendees of the Montana Grain Growers Association convention Wednesday afternoon at the Heritage Inn.

The current farm bill legislation, which is in conference committee now, instead includes federal crop insurance programs that Schultz said are intended to create a safety net for farmers based on risk management instead of past production.

“Three years ago when the congressional Super Committee was put together and was supposed to pass the farm bill, we gave up direct payments in those negotiations because we thought we were going to lose them anyway, especially since commodity markets were strong,” said Bing Von Bergen, a northcentral Montana grain farmer who is also the president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. “The Super Committee didn’t get that done. Last year we thought Congress would pass a farm bill, but they did an extension of the current program. Now some people are talking about another extension, but direct payments aren’t in that extension proposal.”

There are still issues to work out, including whether crop insurance deductibles should be based on average crop production of a county or the average of individual farms, with the latter providing better protection for Montana farmers, said Sen. Max Baucus, a member of the Senate Ag Committee.

Another issue is whether federal crop insurance subsidies should be tied to a farm’s gross adjusted income or compliance with conservation programs.

MGGA Executive Vice President Lola Raska asked Schultz if a consensus on the nutrition title is any closer.

“I can tell you we are making progress. The two sides are getting closer and passing this legislation out of the conference committee is a priority,” he said.