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Klobuchar, Hoeven ready for farm bill conference

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FARGO — An extra $100 million for rural water management and an expanded program for farmers to design their own Conservation Reserve Program contracts were among items that Sens. Amy Klobuchar  and John Hoeven discussed Tuesday in a farm bill roundtable.

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Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Hoeven, R-N.D., say now is the time to “seize on this momentum we have in the budget and on these deadlines.”

Amy Klobuchar

Both are members of the conference committee that will work out differences between Senate and House versions of the farm bill, starting next week. Klobuchar said Congress needs to pass the farm bill before year’s end, and certainly before Jan. 15, when another $20 billion in sequestration cuts is scheduled to take place.

“We need to put the big push on now; that’s what we’ve been doing,” Hoeven said.John Hoeven

He emphasized that the bills will save an estimated $24 billion to $30 billion, but told the farm leaders gathered at the roundtable that they need to tell members of Congress, “If you want the savings, you have to pass the farm bill; they go together.”

Klobuchar noted that discussions about the farm bill have been ongoing since 2011, to replace the expired 2008 farm bill.

Klobuchar and Hoeven will be joined on the committee by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.; Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee; and Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., among others.

Food stamps

Klobuchar says farm groups have asked to keep crop price programs and nutrition assistance programs, known as food stamps, linked because that gives Congress the best prospects for passing a bill.

Hoeven said the nutrition cuts will be the biggest and first issue to tackle, and that it’s been difficult to figure out the politically acceptable amount of cuts.

“Originally, as I was talking to leaders on our side and on the House side, they were saying that (the level of cuts in nutrition) would be determined by the House and Senate leadership and the administration,” Hoeven said. “The latest feedback I’m getting from leadership is that we — in the conference committee — are supposed to come up with a compromise and see if it’s something we could move across both the House and Senate floors.”

Hoeven said he is pushing for a “common sense work requirement” for nutrition benefits, which might be part of a compromise. He declined to “just put a number on it.”

Reforms toward closing loopholes have accounted for $4 billion, focused on 18 states where requirements for food stamps are looser than in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Priorities

During the roundtable discussion, Hoeven and Klobuchar got input from various farm organizations and outlined the following priorities:

• Rural water management: Klobuchar is the prime sponsor of a provision that would add $100 million to an existing $500 million in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which could help manage and store water in rural areas, vitally important for both North Dakota and Minnesota, urban and rural areas.

“Now we have to try to make sure the final bill has that amendment in it,” Klobuchar said. Hoeven and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., are co-sponsors.

• Sugar program: Both versions of the farm bill extend existing sugar programs.

• Wildlife enhancements: Hoeven is promoting a new Conservation Reserve Program feature.

“Going forward, farmers would be able to design their own CRP program” and farmers could “design their own plan around their wetlands or treed areas.”

CRP authorizes 25 million acres and has only 23 million acres enrolled. Hoeven said the entire 25 million acres in CRP are eligible for the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement Program, allowing them to optimize CRP acres to encourage wildlife and maximize farming operations at the same time.

He said North Dakota has less than half the amount of CRP it once had. More habitat is needed for deer and pheasants. The program would combine with North Dakota’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen program and the Coverlocks program, to increase wildlife habitat.

• Enhanced crop insurance: The Senate legislation keeps crop insurance and includes a supplemental coverage option, which allows a producer to purchase a supplemental policy beyond an individual farm-based policy. Hoeven has opposed capping payments by 15 percent if adjusted gross income is more than $750,000, and has favored decoupling conservation compliance from crop insurance.

“We’re hoping to keep them decoupled, but if we can’t I’m going to try and get as much help — in terms of simplification and reducing the regulation — as I can,” he said.

Dan Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, said adding conservation compliance or AGI caps would shrink the pool of participation. He noted that crop insurance was good enough in 2012 so that there was no federal ad hoc disaster bill.

• Revenue loss protection: The Senate bill includes a new Agriculture Risk Coverage program that covers assistance for multiple-year losses, with a farm level option. The program covers shallow losses and works with crop insurance by covering between 78 and 88 percent of the farmer’s historic five-year average revenues, based on price and yield. The House version has a shallow loss program with a county option.

Hoeven said the Senate version is better for farmers because the House’s price loss coverage program has higher pricing in the reference prices under the marketing loan program.

• Livestock Indemnity Program: This renews the indemnity and forage programs and an emergency assistance program and covers the current fiscal year, including South Dakota and North Dakota losses from the Oct. 4 snowstorm. Hoeven said South Dakota lost up to 25,000 head of cattle.

 Mikkel Pates, Forum News Service

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