The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly voted Tuesday to send the House a compromise bill covering nearly $900 billion in federal agriculture and nutrition programs with significant impact on Kansas crop production over the next five years.
The 800-page package was adopted 87-13 in the Senate, with U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts, both Kansas Republicans, voting with the majority.
Members from the U.S. House and Senate assigned to the Farm Bill negotiating committee worked on a final bill for months, and consensus on the agreement by lawmakers brought an end to the closed-door discussions.
The bill drops tougher work requirements for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, sought by Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee, as well as President Donald Trump.
Another key provision is the bill’s legalization of cultivated industrial hemp, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture serving a regulatory czar in developing that crop. Kansas officials are ironing out details for a pilot program for growing versions of the marijuana plant used to make an assortment of products unrelated to the intoxicating influence of pot.
Even with able-bodied work requirements for food stamps removed from the bill, U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., is still optimistic about the 2018 Farm Bill.
“Today, I was extremely proud to stand with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway and sign the 2018 Farm Bill conference report,” Marshall said in a statement. “With the signatures from the conferees, the legislation will now be put in front of each chamber for a final vote this week.”
Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the objective wasn’t a “revolutionary” farm bill, but a measure delivering predictability to producers.
Protection and adjustments for crop insurance
The new Farm Bill includes protection for crop insurance, a program very important to Kansas farmers, according to Kansas Farm Bureau Senior Director of Advocacy Ryan Flickner. It will also allow farmers to purchase a single policy for land across multiple counties, a change that Flickner said could offer better protection.
“A farmer with land in Reno County may also have some in Kingman County,” Flickner said. “Previously they had to buy a complete crop insurance policy for their land in Reno County and another complete policy for their land in Kingman. Under the new bill they would be able to co-mingle those lands a bit.”
Flickner said the separate policies were fine if part of a farmer’s land was clipped by a hail storm, but having one overall policy will be more helpful in times of systemic drought like Kansas has seen in recent years.
The provision also includes instructions to work on insurance for irrigated crops and whole farm coverage for specialty crop producers.
Further praise has been given to the bill from soil health groups as it lifts a barrier from cover crop adoption allowing producers to plant and terminate cover crops without damaging crop insurance eligibility.
CRP, EQIP and CSP programs stay separate
The House Farm Bill included a merger of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, but that provision was abandoned in the final version. While CSP will remain, its budget was cut by about half, and those funds were used to increase the cap of the Conservation Reserve Program from 24 million acres to 27 million acres.
Legalizes industrial hemp
An addition to the bill championed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would declassify industrial hemp from the controlled substance list, making it legal for cultivation nationwide.
The bill sets the United States Department of Agriculture as the regulatory body overseeing the cultivation of industrial hemp, which could make it easier to grow the crop in Kansas. The Kansas Department of Agriculture is currently ironing out regulations for a pilot program for cultivating industrial hemp.
“Kansas will now have to wait and see how USDA handles it,” Flickner said. “But there will be a lot more opportunities for producers to grow industrial hemp in Kansas and potentially not have to go through such rigorous background checks.”
Creates a vaccine bank
The bill dedicates $300 million to animal disease prevention and management efforts. That includes creating a vaccine bank for stockpiling the foot-and-mouth disease vaccine. The vaccine bank will store limited strains of FMD antigen concentrate ready to be turned into vaccines should the need arise. The bank can help control a large scale outbreak and protect livestock.
Expands crop supports
Previously, crop support payments could only be handed down to linear family members, meaning that as aging farmers looked to move management responsibilities to the next generation, they could only move payments to their direct children. A provision in the new Farm Bill would extend eligibility of crop supports to nieces, nephews and cousins, in amounts up to $125,000.
Critics of the move have said it will create wasteful giveaways to family members not even working on the farm, further increasing what they see as bloated farm subsidy spending.
However, Flickner said in a time of aging farmers, the provision could help more people get involved in the industry.
“Today, when the average age of a farmer is close to 60 years old, and we’re looking at large land ownership changes over the next decades, not all linear children are looking to come home and run the farm,” he said. “This provision allows transition of management to other relatives who may want to get involved.”
Adds to market incentives
The bill would add $470 million to market promotion initiatives and restructure the initiatives under one umbrella.
Reforms SNAP in some ways
The House version of the Farm Bill originally called for stricter work requirements on recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The additional requirements were highly contentious, causing the bill to fail its first time on the House floor.
That provision has been removed from the bill, but it does not come without changes to SNAP.
“SNAP reform takes a step down from the House version, more in line with the Senate version,” Flickner said.
The bill will include SNAP reforms, but they will not cut individual benefits to food stamps recipients.
The bill also includes funding for rural broadband improvements, rural health developments and $600 million in funding to research and extension projects.
Several farm groups, including National Sorghum Producers and Kansas Corn applauded the Senate for its passage of the bill, especially Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.
KDA Secretary Jackie McClaskey expressed her gratitude for Roberts’ work.
“We especially appreciate Sen. Roberts’ efforts to seek input from Kansas agriculture stakeholders throughout this entire process, and then to truly consider that input in the development of the Farm Bill,” she said. “Congratulations on a job well done.”
Flickner shared McClaskey’s sentiment, as well as recognizing the work put in by Marshall, who served on the House Agriculture Committee and Farm Bill Conference Committee.