Congress Passes Farm Bill With Key Conservation Reforms

This article has been reprinted from the NGFA Newsletter.

By Sarah Gonzalez, Director of Communications and Digital Media

After eight months of mark-ups, negotiations and debate, Congress passed the farm bill this week, sending the nation’s major food and agriculture policy — including positive reforms to federal conservation programs — to President Donald Trump for signature.

The House approved the final bill by a 369-47 vote on Dec. 12, following the Senate’s 87-13 passage on Dec. 11.

The compromise bill released late on Dec. 10 did not include the most controversial House Republican proposals regarding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, which had fueled intense partisan debate on the bill over the past several months.

The five-year legislation largely continues current farm and nutrition policy and is projected to cost $867 billion over a decade.

President Trump is expected to sign it into law before the end of the month.

In a press statement on Dec. 11, NGFA President and CEO Randy Gordon noted the conservation provisions included in the farm bill “will help keep good quality land in production that can be farmed sustainably using prudent and sustainable conservation practices.”

NGFA members took advantage of the NGFA’s advocacy tool by sending emails and tweets to lawmakers encouraging them to support the legislation.

Important reforms to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the farm bill include:

• CRP payments are capped at 85 percent of local rental rates for general signup acreage and 90 percent for land enrolled through continuous signup. “Reducing rental rates should help refocus the program on truly highly erodible and environmentally sensitive land,” Gordon noted “This policy change also benefits young and beginning farmers and ranchers who for too long have been forced to compete directly against the federal government to access farmland, a troubling policy when the average age of the American farmer is 58.”

• Maximum CRP enrollment increased from 24 million acres to 27 million acres. The CRP limit would be raised to 24.5 million acres in 2020, 25 million in 2021, 25.5 million in 2022 and 27 million in 2023. At least 2 million of the 27 million acres is reserved for grasslands.

• Creation of a pilot program called the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP), which will allow farmers to take land out of production under shorter contracts than permitted by CRP. The program would be limited to 50,000 acres in South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. SHIPP contracts would be limited to three to five years, and payments would be capped at half of local rental rates.

“While NGFA would have preferred that Congress limit the CRP acreage cap to the program's current 24 million acres – as too many whole farms and acres of prime farmland are idled while environmentally sensitive acres are left unprotected through the program's general sign-up process – the Association appreciates the conferees’ adoption of a reasonable CRP limit of 27 million acres…especially in light of pressure early on from some groups to expand the CRP cap by a whopping 66 percent to 40 million acres,” Gordon said in the press statement.

The NGFA also praised the conferees’ decision not to include the Senate farm bill's provisions on permanent Conservation Reserve Easements, which potentially would have removed hundreds of thousands of acres permanently from crop production each year.

The farm bill does include a pilot program, “CLEAR 30,” to extend 30-year CRP contracts for certain continuous practices; however, these acres would be counted under the new CRP statutory cap of 27 million acres.

The farm bill also includes an important provision for grain handlers regarding domestic official grain inspections by providing the 36 grain elevators whose non-use of service/open season exception agreements were revoked by USDA in 2017 with the opportunity to restore such business agreements.

Under the farm bill language, these elevators will have the option to restore the previous arrangement with their non-incumbent domestic official inspection provider by notifying USDA of the change.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Monday the final bill “maintains a strong safety net for the farm economy, invests in critical agricultural research and will promote agriculture exports through robust trade programs.”

But he noted the administration’s disappointment that the bill doesn’t include stricter work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries or reforms of forestry management practices.

Throughout the negotiation process, President Trump voiced his support for work requirements included in the House version of the bill.

“While we would have liked to see more progress on work requirements for SNAP recipients and forest management reforms, the conference agreement does include several helpful provisions, and we will continue to build upon these through our authorities,” Perdue said.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, who shepherded SNAP reforms in the House bill, thanked the administration for its support and praised the bill’s passage.

“America's farmers and ranchers are weathering the fifth year of severe recession, so passing a farm bill this week that strengthens the farm safety net is vitally important," Conaway said.

The House Agriculture Committee also issued a media statement quoting supportive farm bill statements from the NGFA and several other groups

Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who will assume the committee chairmanship in the next Congress while the new farm bill is being implemented, noted that “while the road to get here had a few bumps along the way, I’m glad that we were finally able to reach an agreement.”

The bill also maintains current limits on farm subsidies but includes a House provision to expand the definition of “family” eligible for payments under the program.

It also preserves the two principal farm safety net programs – ARC and PLC – and allows farmers to update their program election for 2019- 2020 and to switch between them thereafter on an annual basis.

Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, voted against the farm bill for failing to incorporate means testing on farm subsidy payments that he’s championed for years.

The NGFA thanked Conaway, Peterson, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and their staffs for their hard work and dedication to completing a farm bill, which will provide much-needed certainty to NGFA members and their farmer customers.