Proposed farm bill would keep safety net

The Associated Press WASHINGTON -- Congress took its first steps on the farm bill this week, and the results so far are a mixed bag for the Dakotas. The House bill is mostly good news for Plains farmers -- the current subsidy structure would be m...

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Congress took its first steps on the farm bill this week, and the results so far are a mixed bag for the Dakotas.

The House bill is mostly good news for Plains farmers -- the current subsidy structure would be maintained, with some moderate reforms that would cap payments to millionaires. Direct subsidy payments would be increased. The bill also would boost loan support for soybeans, wheat and barley when prices are low.

"The safety net is at the heart of this farm bill," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, which approved the sweeping, five-year bill late Thursday.

But the creation of a permanent disaster assistance program, a major priority for the Dakotas delegation, appears to be stalled. The money just isn't there, said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.


The two members of the House from the Dakotas -- Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., and Pomeroy -- said they will keep fighting for the disaster program. They said it doesn't hurt that the chairman of the committee doesn't live far away.

"It's good to have a neighbor from Minnesota as chairman," Herseth Sandlin said.

The committee also unanimously supported a compromise on food labeling, putting new life into a five-year-old law that has been delayed by opponents. The law, now scheduled to begin next year, would require meats and other foods to be labeled with their country of origin.

Dakota ranchers like the law because it would enable them to distinguish their meat products from imported Canadian meat. The compromise softened penalties and burdensome record-keeping requirements that had worried many food retailers and meatpackers who opposed the law.

The committee approved a package of "extras" like the disaster assistance in hopes that money eventually could be found for those programs. But the disaster provision is not in the main bill.

Peterson said Friday that the disaster package, estimated at $4 billion to $5 billion, would be a "pretty heavy lift, given the nature of Congress wanting to deal with emergencies as emergencies."

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and also the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said he has found some potential funding sources for the disaster program. The Senate Agriculture Committee has not yet moved a bill.

Still, Conrad said, "it's not going to be easy in the Senate either, because with a lot of limited resources there are competing demands."


Western and Midwestern lawmakers have fought for emergency disaster aid several times in the last several years, most recently winning $3 billion for farmers affected by weather-related disasters earlier this year. But they would rather have a permanent fund that could be tapped when losses reach a certain threshold.

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven also has supported a disaster package or adjustments in crop insurance that would help farmers recover. He will be in Washington next week lobbying the administration and Congress on farm issues.

The week could be a busy one. House leaders have thrown their support behind the committee bill and say they are aiming to debate it on the House floor late in the week.

"I look forward to supporting farm country by passing the farm bill on a bipartisan basis," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement Friday.

Her support might make it more difficult for Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., and other critics of farm subsidies to gather votes for changing the system. Kind has proposed mostly phasing out government payments for agriculture.

Other parts of the House bill favorable to Dakotas farmers include:

-- Improvements to broadband communications in rural areas;

-- Assistance for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers;


-- Support for conservation programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to keep land idle, the Wetlands Reserve Program and others;

-- Loan guarantees for ethanol and other renewable fuel refineries.

Herseth Sandlin sponsored amendments to the bill that would prevent closures of Farm Service Agency offices for a year and allow federal funding for rural public television stations. She said she hopes the final bill includes increased funding for the Grassland Reserve Program, which pays landowners to protect grasslands on their property.

Pomeroy sponsored amendments to improve federal crop insurance and to provide grants for rural cooperative development centers.

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