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Disaster bill sets stage for farm bill

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The disaster assistance bill looks like it will set the stage for the next farm bill, offering a higher baseline for funding and likely taking care of two contentious issues related to dairy and cotton, Sen. Jerry Moran (R., Kan.) told attendees at a workshop during the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 2018 Annual Convention & IDEAg Trade Show.

Currently, the House bill, which was passed ahead of the Christmas break, will eliminate the existing $20 million annual cap on the Livestock Gross Margin program, enabling the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer coverage to more farmers in the current program and provide new risk management options for dairy producers.

The bill also restores eligibility for cotton in the Title I Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs for crops. Cotton producers could declare “seed cotton” eligible for the program. The bill sets a reference price for seed cotton at 36.7 cents/lb.

Moran said it’s likely that the dairy and cotton issues “will prevail” when the Senate takes up its disaster bill. However, dairy groups are seeking more assistance on the dairy end from Senate leaders.

“As the bill moves forward, dairy farmers still badly need changes to the ineffective dairy Margin Protection Program (MPP), and we strongly urge the Senate to include such changes when it takes up the disaster bill. We support the efforts of Sens. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) to include MPP improvements in the final supplemental spending bill,” said Jim Mulhern, president of the National Milk Producers Federation.

Ideally, lawmakers will address contentious issues related to cotton and dairy programs in the disaster bill and “get them out of the way” before the farm bill debate heats up, Moran said. He noted that the Senate is likely to take up the House-passed disaster aid bill, amend it and send it back as a package.

By including dairy and cotton issues within an appropriations or separate disaster bill, Moran said it will provide additional baseline spending amounts to use in the farm bill writing.

“We know you’re anxious to see action” on the farm bill, but progress is often slow, Moran acknowledged. He also noted that if all of agriculture doesn’t work together, nothing will get done. The House is ahead of the Senate in terms of progress on the farm bill, and the overall timing of the legislation is uncertain. Moran did predict the Senate will release its version of the farm bill in the first few months of 2018.

He said the Senate is a challenging place for anything to pass. He said history likely will repeat itself, meaning “no farm bill is ever done on time.”

As far as what the upcoming farm bill should include, “the current safety net is not adequate, and changes are needed,” Moran said, referring specifically to the ARC and PLC programs for crops.

He said the issue of discrepancies across county lines on program payments and whether to use data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and Risk Management Agency (RMA) is on the radar of legislators. Last year’s appropriations bill included money to study what ways NASS and RMA could reconcile some of the differences.

“I think this will be one issue that will not be forgotten,” Moran said, urging farmers to help legislators figure out what the best thing is for their needs.

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