Senate agriculture panel passes farm bill with hemp legalization

Key Points
  • The Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday passed the 2018 farm bill in a 20-1 vote despite an attempt to tighten farmer subsidies.
  • Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, cast the sole "no" vote, because his amendment to limit subsidy payments wasn't added to the proposed bill.
  • The farm bill includes hemp legalization legislation that is backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
  • McConnell made a case during Wednesday's agriculture panel meeting for supporting the hemp legalization.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., attends a meeting of the Senate Agriculture Committee to consider a bipartisan farm bill that makes mostly modest adjustments to existing programs and, unlike the House version of the bill, doesn't pick a fight over food stamps, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 13, 2018.
Jacquelyn Martin | AP

The Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday passed the massive farm bill by a 20-1 vote and overcame an attempt to tighten subsidy payments to farmers.

The draft farm bill, officially known as the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, contains more than 1,000 pages and covers everything from farm subsidies and food stamps to trade and rural development policy. Farmer assistance includes commodity payment programs, as well as subsidized crop insurance.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, cast the sole "no" vote, because his amendment to limit subsidy payments wasn't added to the proposed bill. Grassley wants to tighten the federal payments to focus on family-size farm operations.

Earlier in the panel's meeting, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pledged that the full Senate will vote on the entire 2018 farm bill before the July 4 recess. McConnell also said he's "hopeful the House will get to theirs, but it will probably look a little different than ours."

The House failed to pass a farm bill last month due to an immigration squabble among Republicans.

A House vote soon "would give us a chance to get into conference and actually make a law here," said McConnell.

McConnell also made a case during Wednesday's Senate Agriculture Committee meeting for supporting his hemp legalization legislation. McConnell said farmers in his home state of Kentucky and across the nation are interested in an industrial hemp industry.

According to McConnell, hemp farming in Kentucky can help replace some of the revenue from falling tobacco demand.

"I know there are farming communities all over the country who are interested in this," said McConnell. "Mine are particularly interested in it, and the reason for that is — as all of you know — our No. 1 cash crop used to be something that's really not good for you: tobacco. And that has declined significantly, as it should, given the public health concerns.

In particular, the GOP leader said, "Younger farmers in my state are particularly interested in going in this direction. We have a lot of people in my state who are extremely enthusiastic about the possibilities. As we all know, hemp is very diversified."

Hemp farmer Buck Chavez, left, and master gardner Cory Columbo working for Paradox Ventures, process of new crop of Hemp in Nucla, Colorado.
Andy Cross | The Denver Post | Getty Images

As a plant, hemp looks like marijuana, but it contains low levels of THC, the chemical that produces a "high" for pot users. Industrial hemp is used to make everything from apparel, foods and pharmaceuticals to body care products, car dashboards and building materials.

"It's time to figure it out and see where this market will take us," he said. "I think it's an important new development in American agriculture. There's plenty of hemp around; it's just coming from other countries. Why in the world would we want a lot of it to not come from here?"

Still, McConnell said he isn't sure whether industrial hemp will ever be as big as tobacco was in Kentucky. "We always had diverse agriculture, but there was nothing as big as tobacco," he said. "So all the people in rural Kentucky who sort of grew up with tobacco, are hoping this [hemp] will be really something."

McConnell's hemp legislation, known as the Hemp Farming Act, is included in the Senate's farm bill and would remove industrial hemp from the list of controlled substances under federal law.

"I think it's time we took this step," said McConnell. "I think everybody has figured it out that this isn't the other plant."

McConnell said agriculture has long been a "central part" of his state's economy and pride, from poultry to beef and soybeans, corn and tobacco. He said there are more than 75,000 farms in Kentucky providing "jobs and a great way of life for the people that I represent."

The farm bill is usually renewed every five years, and the current version is set to expire Sept. 30. The previous farm bill, from 2014, relaxed hemp laws and allowed farmers in a handful of states, including Kentucky, to grow the crop as part of research projects.

"I'm proud to support this bill before us today," McConnell told the Agriculture Committee. "It can deliver much-needed certainty for farmers. One way it does so is by protecting crop insurance, a crucial tool for our farmers who face challenges such as natural disasters or inclement weather that can wipe out an entire operation."

McConnell also noted that the draft 2018 farm bill includes funds for water infrastructure investments as well as reforms to support protection of forest lands. He also said it boosts rural communities by expanding high-speed Internet and providing funds to fight the opioid epidemic.

"By any measure, this is a good bill with common-sense proposals to help families and communities," he said.

The Senate Agriculture Committee considered more than 60 amendments to the farm bill. Several senators speaking Wednesday said the farm bill was needed due to farmers struggling, particularly dairy producers.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., spoke about how dairy farmers in her state are tragically resorting to suicide due to financial distress. "Giving them relief now is crucial," she said.

The Senate version of the 2018 farm bill would add new coverage for the federal government's dairy margin protection program and rename it "Dairy Risk Coverage." There also would be about $100 million added to the dairy assistance program, which is on top of the $1.1 billion in subsidies approved in February as part of a budget bill.

The lion's share of the farm bill's funding is devoted to programs such as food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Total benefits paid out last year by SNAP exceeded $63 billion and went to more than 42 million participants.

The GOP-backed House farm bill that failed last month sought tougher work requirements for SNAP participants. The White House also has been pushing for tougher work requirements for public assistance programs that target low-income Americans, including food stamps and public housing assistance.