Senate committee optimistic about farm bill passage

The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee reported the Agriculture

Improvement Act of 2018, also known as the Farm Bill, with a 20-1 roll call vote. The 2014 Farm Bill expires at the end of September, and members of both parties on the committee stressed the importance of passing a new five-year Farm Bill before the old one expires.

Title II of the Farm Bill authorizes the Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program. These voluntary programs provide technical and financial assistance to landowners who follow sound stewardship practices on their lands to improve wildlife habitat, reduce erosion and improve soil and water quality. The programs can help take less productive or ecologically sensitive land out of production to benefit wildlife but still allow landowners to make money.

“This bill has no overall cuts to the conservation title, which helps our farmers be more productive and protects our land and water for outdoor recreation,” said Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan.

The Senate version of the bill, which was marked up June 13, would raise the cap on the Conservation Reserve Program from 24 million to 25 million acres and sets rental rates at 88.5 percent of market rates. Many farmers have been interested in enrolling their lands in CRP due to falling commodity prices. Raising the acreage caps would allow more farmers to participate in the program.

The House version of the bill (H.R. 2) proved much more contentious in May when it failed by a vote of 198-213. That version would have eliminated the Conservation Stewardship Program and merged some of its features with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. It would also have raised the Conservation Reserve Program acreage cap to 29 million by 2023, and it would set payment rates at 80 percent of county market value.

The House bill is expected to return to the floor on June 22.

Senators on the committee expressed optimism that their bipartisan bill would pass the chamber before July 4. Most amendments were settled by voice vote, and members pulled several they thought would prove contentious to be discussed more during a floor vote. Discrepancies between the two versions still would need to be settled with a conference committee.

Header Image: The Senate version of the Farm Bill would reduce the annual acreage for the Conservation Stewardship Program from 10 million to 8.8 million. The House version would cut the program.