Massive $867 billion Farm bill with expanded safety-net programs, hemp legalization nears the finish line

  • The 2018 Farm Bill includes expanded safety-net programs for both crop producers as well as dairy farmers.
  • The $867 billion bill follows many months of tense negotiations and partisan bickering over work requirement changes for food stamps.
  • The compromise bill left out stricter work requirements sought by House Republicans for people getting food stamps.
  • The final bill includes a provision for industrial hemp legalization that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had introduced.
A farmer harvests soybeans on near Worthington, Minnesota. A
Scott Olson | Getty Images
A farmer harvests soybeans on near Worthington, Minnesota. A

The 2018 Farm Bill that includes expanded safety-net programs for farmers could be voted on as early as Wednesday or Thursday after joint House-Senate negotiators released the final version of the legislation. The $867 billion bill follows many months of tense negotiations in conference committee and bickering over work requirement changes for food stamps.

The compromise farm bill filed late Monday by negotiators is seen as important at a time when farmers are reeling from low commodity prices and the U.S.-China trade war. The bill expands export opportunities for farmers by providing an additional $500 million in permanent funding over the next decade to help find new foreign markets for U.S. agricultural products.

"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," House Agriculture Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said in a statement.

Supporters listen as Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va., holds a news conference with faith leaders to 'urge lawmakers to reject proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the Farm Bill' on Monday, May 7, 2018. 
Sarah Silbiger | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images
Supporters listen as Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va., holds a news conference with faith leaders to 'urge lawmakers to reject proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the Farm Bill' on Monday, May 7, 2018. 

The massive bill left out the controversial stricter work requirements sought by House Republicans for people getting food stamps, or participants in the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Democrats opposed adding the tougher work requirements that would have cut or reduced benefits for more than 2 million people.

The farm bill is expected to cost $867 billion over 10 years, with the lion's share of the wide-ranging bill's funding devoted to programs such as SNAP.

The new farm bill reauthorizes key safety-nets for agricultural producers, including federal crop insurance and farm commodity programs that provide a floor price and income support for covered commodities and farmers. It also expands crop insurance coverage to new crops including fruits, vegetables, hops and barley.

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The 807-page bill also offers improved crop insurance access for veteran farmers and beginning farmers and offers cost-share assistance to help farmers transition into organics. It also quadruples investment for organic research.

There's also $2.4 billion set aside to help specialty crop growers by continuing permanent investments in research, pest management and promotion of fruits and vegetables. Approximately $125 million was set aside in the bill to conduct five years of research funding to find a way to defeat the devastating citrus greening disease.

"I welcome the introduction of the Farm Bill conference committee report, and hope the Congress can approve this legislation expeditiously," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. "This legislation maintains a strong safety net for the farm economy, invests in critical agricultural research, and will promote agriculture exports through robust trade programs."

Continued Purdue, "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. If Congress passes this legislation I will encourage the President to sign it."

In remarks Tuesday, President Donald Trump said the farm bill has bipartisan support and "is in very good shape." The president added that "farmers are well taken care of."

The conference agreement maintains the USDA's Conservation Stewardship Program, which is utilized by forest and farm landowners. The House version of the farm bill sought to gut the program but in the end there were several reforms adopted in conference along with a cut in funding from roughly $1.8 billion to about $1 billion.

Savings from CSP will be used in part to boost the government's Environmental Quality Incentives Program to provide financial and technical assistance for natural resource management, including conservation practices that improve the soil and water.

"We are glad to see that the conference report retains CSP's structure as a unique and independent program, and believe these reforms send a strong message to USDA to focus funding on the most impactful conservation activities to address our most pressing environmental challenges," said Juli Obudzinski, interim policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which fought to retain the conservation program.

For dairy farmers, the margin protection program is updated in the bill and the financial safety-net program contains changes designed to encourage smaller producers to participate, including lower insurance premiums and a higher margin. The voluntary program, which is rebranded as dairy margin coverage in the bill, offers dairy producers the ability to buy insurance-type coverage to protect against low margins.

Some dairy farmers complained that the Margin Protection Program as structured in the 2014 Farm Bill wasn't much help since they paid premiums for years without getting much in the way of insurance payouts. The U.S. dairy industry is currently facing its fourth-straight year of depressed milk prices.

"This bill is a strong start to addressing the issues our producers are facing right now, particularly our dairy farmers," said House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn. "It also invests $300 million in the prevention and response for animal pests and disease."

While the 2018 Farm Bill could reach the House floor as early as Wednesday or Thursday, it might not get voted on in the Senate until next week. The farm bill is usually renewed every five years and the last one expired Sept. 30.

The final farm bill includes a provision that was in the Senate version that would legalize industrial hemp cultivation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced the 2018 hemp legislation and pushed for it to be included in the new farm bill. He also included himself in the joint conference committee on the farm bill and was one of the members signing the compromise bill Monday.

McConnell's provision would remove industrial hemp from the federal government's list of controlled substances, making it a lawful agricultural commodity and eligible for crop insurance. The previous farm bill, from 2014, relaxed hemp laws and allowed farmers in a handful of states to grow the crop as part of research projects

Elsewhere, the bill also contains some changes in disaster programs by adopting the Senate provision on non-insured crop assistance. It more than doubles the disaster assistance coverage options for crops not eligible for crop insurance.

There's also funding to help with the opioid crisis in rural America and expanded telemedicine and community facility investments to bolster treatment options at the local level to aid in the fight against the deadly epidemic of overdoses. Farm communities have been especially hard hit by opioid addiction - including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl.

The farm bill also provides $500 million to promote rural small businesses and farmers use of renewable energy and to create energy installation jobs. There's also more funding to expand high-speed Internet to rural communities.

Finally, the legislation provides for what the Committee on Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry calls "expanding bipartisan forest health tools and expediting wildfire prevention treatments," including waiving some environmental review requirements to remove dead or diseased trees from public lands.

Environmental groups such as Defenders of Wildlife hailed the forestry provisions as a win and lashed out at the House plan for being too "extreme" on several fronts. But some ranch groups had hoped the final bill would go further and be closer to what House Republicans and the White House sought.

"In order to get a handle on catastrophic wildfires in the West, land managers on the ground need to the tools to expedite the process – not simply lip service paid to the problem," said Ethan Lane, executive director of the Public Lands Council, which represents the livestock industry. He said the final version of the bill should have allowed for more reforms to better deal with forest management issues and reduce environmental litigation risks.