Ravalli Republic: Latest farm bill protects Montana’s interests, Daines and Tester

The U.S. Senate version of the farm bill delivers for Montana agriculture and forests, the state’s two senators said Tuesday.

Sens. Steve Daines, Republican, and Jon Tester, Democrat, say they have amendments to the 2018 farm bill as the bill goes to the floor for debate, but mostly they see the state’s interests protected. The bill passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee last week on a 20 to 1 vote.

Daines, an Agriculture Committee member, said the bipartisanship that got the farm bill through committee should assure its passage in the Senate.

“We’re off to a very good start. This farm bill is good news for Montana’s farmers, for Montana’s ranchers, helping provide some certainty to Montana agriculture in these rather uncertain times,” Daines said. “In fact, USDA estimates net farm income to be 52 percent less than it was just five years ago.”

Commodity prices have fallen sharply in recent years due to an oversupply of crops worldwide, according to The U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The price tag for the Senate bill is still to be determined, though the version that passed the House of Representatives spends nearly $900 billion over the next five years. The farm bill is a significant spending bill for states like Montana where agriculture is a multibillion-dollar contributor to the state economy and farmers rely on federally subsidized crop insurance to manage risk. The bill includes the Conservation Reserve Program, which is the federal government’s largest wildlife habitat program, and also the budget for the U.S. Forrest Service programs.

The bill also contains the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the largest federal attempt to feed the poor.

“It’s fair to point out that the farm bill is probably misnamed,” Daines said. “It should be called the SNAP bill with some farm policy attached to it. Seventy-six percent of the funding in the farm bill is SNAP.”

SNAP, better known as food stamps, is sure to be a sticking point when the House and Senate farm bills are reconciled. The Senate left SNAP as is, except for some food safety changes, Daines said. The House imposed tougher work requirements on poor adults who use SNAP, a move that will exclude millions of people from the program.

Daines said he will propose changes to the forestry portion of the farm bill in the coming days to reduce the number of lawsuits against timber projects. Daines wants the Forest Service to use binding arbitration to settle disputes over projects that were collaboratively developed to address hazardous fuels or insect and disease reduction. The amendment calls for a pilot project in Montana, as well as parts of Idaho and North Dakota.

“The idea here is to recognize there might be disputes about the law,” Daines said. “Let’s look at a pilot program, test this idea of arbitration instead of litigation,” noting that there are 20 injunctions on Montana timber projects now.

Tester is proposing a fix to the Agriculture Risk Coverage crop insurance program. At issue is the way ARC calculates weather loss at the county level. In large western counties, two Montana farmers 100 miles apart can experience dramatically different weather, from hail to drought. Tester’s amendment would assure farmer’s compensation isn’t watered down by splitting Farm Service Agency county administrative units in two.

In a press release, Tester said the farm bill would create certainty for farmers who are facing unknowns in the marketplace because of potential trade wars resulting from tariff’s authorized by President Donald Trump.

“This bill provides a safety net when Mother Nature deals us a drought and helps when prices are low in the market,” Tester said. “This bill is particularly important right now because of the tariffs that are causing uncertainty and driving down prices at the farm gate.”