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ND forum focuses on questions about this year's federal farm bill

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.1 / 3
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.2 / 3
U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-ND.3 / 3

DICKINSON, N.D. — As this year's farm bill continues to take shape, the question of what impact it will have on area farmers looms large.

A presentation at this year's Diversity, Direction and Dollars agriculture forum in Dickinson on Jan. 4 by Bradley Lubben, Extension assistant professor and policy specialist for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, suggested that any proposed legislation will be tasked with doing a lot with little money.

"The 2018 farm bill is written for a struggling farm economy," Lubben said. "It's the first farm bill that's been written for a struggling economy since '02 and since '85. It's a different kind of debate. What kind of safety net can we give? How can we provide adequate support to producers?"

He described the political climate in which the impending bill is being formed, noting that partisan politics have locked budget cuts on defense and Social Security, Medicare and other programs. He said the only places left to cut in order to address the $600 billion deficit in the U.S. federal budget are its other domestic programs, and that includes farm programs.

"The budget challenge says that there is no new money. It's difficult to imagine how to find new money to fund, that's everybody's top priority," he said. "We're trying to write a farm bill for a struggling farm economy while at the same time we have no real budget to try and find new funding. It really suggests a flat bill at best."

Producers Weigh In

The current farm bill, which is set to expire in fall 2018, has served some area farmers and ranchers well. Byron Richard, a beef rancher near Belfield, said he hopes to see existing programs preserved.

"Well, first of all, the reality is that we're going to be lucky to hold on to the programs we have had," Richard said. "We actually have a better program now then we did 10 years ago ... we're a little bit nervous that we could lose some of the programs critical to southwest North Dakota. If we could retain the majority of what we already have, we'd (get by all right)."

Richard and Rodney Rebel, another area farmer and rancher, agreed that drought protection and crop insurance need to be a high priority for farmers.

"More drought protection than there even was. Crop insurance is a big deal, too," Rebel said. "Every time when the programs come out, the farmers are getting cut more and more every time. There's not a lot of protection for the cattle people. I hope they step that up a little bit."

Rebel said he hopes the new farm bill brings more substantial changes.

"I hope it changes into a better program for them and more security for the family farm and everything else," he added.

Congress' work continues

U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said the new farm bill should do more to help provide accurate and useful data to farmers.

"In regards to the drought specifically, what I've gotten from farmers and ranchers is (that there is a) lack of good data, which is critical," Cramer said. "Data has been the biggest challenge and particularly in the big, wide west."

Risk Management Agency data is one of the ways crop worth is calculated, which helps determine whether a producer qualifies for Ag Risk Coverage (ARC) payments. One of the foibles of the ARC system is that it is determined on a per county basis and U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. said this creates an unfair situation.

"You can have two farmers right next to each other (and) they can both have the same kind of year but ... because they are in different counties (they get paid differently)," he said. "You were getting results that weren't fair for farmers who had the same result in different counties."

Last year, Hoeven said, he started a $5 million pilot program for ARC intended to help provide funding for improvements to the system.

"All of these things cost money," he said. "Everybody's got a great idea for legislation, but at the end of the day you have to figure out how to pay for something ... I put $5 million for a pilot program ... and they're going to implement it across the country. We'll built that into our farm bill based on the pilot program."

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she has introduced legislation she hopes addresses the problems with county lines and ARC. She the first goal of the farm bill should be to provide a strong safety net, particularly in regards to weather and the price of crops.

"(It) is absolutely critical that we maintain the level of crop insurance that we have," Heitkamp said. "The drought really stress-tested the farm bill as it relates to a safety net, and we've included a number of provisions that we're including in the ... disaster bill that's going through."

Heitkamp was frank about the funding challenges facing the new bill.

"We're just hoping that we don't get cut. We're concerned we're not going to be able to raise the amount of money we need to fund the farm bill," she said. "One of the things we have to constantly remind our colleague (about) ... the last farm bill we had to take some dramatic cuts ... we don't think we should take more cuts."

Cramer is confident the House is nearly ready to present its version of the bill. There are going to be two separate proposals for a new farm bill, one from the House and one from the Senate.

"To their credit, the House Ag Committee ... they started work on this almost right away last year," Cramer said. "The committee did a lot of work last year. They've had a draft bill since last year, that bill is being scored ... I think you'll see them produce a product here in the next few weeks."

Heitkamp negotiations on the Senate side have begun "in earnest" and it would be realistic to expect a bill to be produced in late February or early March.