AGRICULTURE:

Negotiators release final farm bill with wins for conservation, renewable energy

House and Senate negotiators yesterday evening released a long-awaited farm bill agreement that would extend agriculture programs for the next five years.

The bill significantly modifies the federal agricultural subsidy system and cuts food stamp spending, in addition to including a number of environmental and energy provisions. In a major win for conservationists, the bill would tie conservation requirements to federal crop insurance subsidies, while also limiting subsidies on newly tilled land.

The legislation would also provide nearly $900 million in mandatory funding to renewable energy and biofuels initiatives over the next decade and extend incentives to renewable chemical manufacturers.

It does not include a controversial amendment by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) that would have limited states' ability to regulate the way agricultural goods are produced.

House GOP leaders threw their weight behind the 949-page compromise bill last night and said they plan to bring it to a full House vote tomorrow.

"I have voted against the last two farm bills because, in my view, they made farm and food stamp policy worse rather than better. This legislation, however, is worthy of the House's support," Boehner said in a statement, despite having initial reservations about the bill's dairy industry provisions.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) yesterday said that he plans to bring the bill to the floor within the next three weeks.

The final farm bill conference committee report is the work of House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). The full 41-member bicameral conference committee signed off on it yesterday.

The compromise represents a huge step toward completion of the next iteration of the nation's farm policy. The farm bill has for years served as a symbol of Washington, D.C., dysfunction, having been kept off the House floor in 2012 and surprisingly defeated last year in an initial vote in the House.

"I'm operating on caffeine and adrenaline," Stabenow said yesterday, acknowledging the long process.

Lucas yesterday evening also noted the difficulties of getting to a final bill. But he applauded the final version as a "responsible" bipartisan compromise that cuts about $23 billion from the federal deficit over the next decade.

"I think the work product we have here is really quite amazing," Lucas said. "It might almost be a miracle."

Some Democrats, though, said they were concerned about the haste with which leadership planned to bring the bill to a floor vote. The rule approved for the bill provides for no amendments.

"The process is deeply disappointing ... People ought to be given some time to express their views," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

The bill is projected to cost about $950 billion over the next decade. About 80 percent of the bill is federal nutrition assistance, while the remainder represents agricultural subsidies, conservation programs, energy initiatives and other smaller programs.

In a compromise, the final farm bill would cut about $8 billion over the next decade from food stamps.

The most major reform in the bill is the proposed elimination of the direct payments that farmers have historically received regardless of the acres they actually plant in a given year. The bill would replace direct payments by giving farmers a choice between a new revenue insurance program and a program that provides assistance when market prices drop below a certain level.

It would eliminate, though, subsidy reforms included in both the House and Senate versions of the bill that would have limited agriculture subsidies to $50,000 for an individual and $100,000 for a married couple. Instead, it would increase the limit to $125,000 for an individual and $250,000 for a couple. The final bill also would not fully close loopholes that allow for several managers of a farm to each receive subsidies for that farm.

The elimination of the farm subsidy reforms comes after the price of corn has dipped in recent months, a market dynamic that has left farmers facing uncertain economic times.

Critics of farm subsidy programs, though, pounced on the decision and said it would lead to wasted taxpayer dollars (E&E Daily, Nov. 20, 2013).

"The result will be an uncapped, unlimited entitlement that will continue to be riddled with fraud and abuse and continue to waste taxpayers money, transferring government subsidies from less well off taxpayers to mega farms with huge assets and high incomes, while putting rank and file family farmers at an artificial government-sanctioned competitive disadvantage and shutting beginning farmers out of the land market," the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said in a statement.

Wins for conservationists

Conservationists successfully advocated for their top priority in the bill, a provision that would require farmers and ranchers to abide by basic conservation measures in exchange for federal subsidies for crop insurance on highly erodible land and wetlands.

Conservation requirements have been attached to direct payments, but Congress removed the requirement from crop insurance 18 years ago in order to persuade more farmers to join the program rather than rely on ad hoc disaster assistance. Conservationists worried that the elimination of direct payments would lead to less conservation on agricultural lands if the provision were not reattached to crop insurance.

The final conference committee report includes the provision despite opposition by Lucas and the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest agriculture organization. The provision had a strong supporter, though, in Stabenow, who included it in the Senate version of the bill.

The bill also would include "sodsaver," a provision that limits crop insurance subsidies for the first few years in areas where land is newly converted to cropland. The measure is meant to discourage farmers from tilling native grasslands.

Though conservation groups angled to have the program apply across the whole country, the farm bill would limit the program to cropland in Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

In all, the farm bill consolidates 23 conservation programs into 13 mostly by folding smaller programs into larger ones and cuts $6 billion from conservation over the next decade. It streamlines the process for the Agriculture Department to provide farmers with technical assistance for putting conservation practices on their lands.

Conservation groups hailed the overall bill.

"It was worth the wait to get a farm bill that will help protect our nation's land, water and wildlife," said Julie Sibbing, senior director of agriculture and forestry programs for the National Wildlife Federation. "We are particularly pleased that the final bill includes a critical provision to prevent soil erosion and conserve our nation's priceless wetlands, both of which will protect water quality for people and wildlife."

Conservation supporters in Congress also said they were pleased.

"I think considering all things, I'm happy it's done. I'm glad to see our sodsaver extended a little bit," said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), ranking member on the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry, in a brief interview yesterday evening. "I think overall it's a pretty good compromise."

A one-year extension of a federal program that pays rural counties to offset lost property tax revenue was also included in the farm bill conference report. The payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) program has been a priority of lawmakers in Western states, where much of the land is owned by the government.

PILT came into the spotlight recently because the massive omnibus bill passed earlier this month did not include an extension of the program. It was widely expected that agriculture negotiators would include it in the farm bill (E&ENews PM, Jan. 16).

Energy

The bill also would provide $881 million in mandatory funding over the next 10 years for Agriculture Department renewable energy and biofuels programs.

The Senate version included the mandatory funding for rural energy programs, while the House bill included only discretionary funds subject to the whim of congressional appropriators. Supporters of the energy programs had pressed negotiators to include the full funding from the Senate version in the final bill.

They applauded the final conference report.

"Today's conference report will continue the farm bill's support for economic growth and development in rural America," said the Agriculture Energy Coalition, a group of renewable energy companies and advocates. "Renewable energy and energy efficiency programs support new manufacturing and stable, well-paying jobs."

For the first time, the bill also would make renewable chemicals eligible for funding under biorefinery and biomass assistance programs and support crops grown purposefully for the bio-based products industry.

Forestry

The bill would also provide big wins for forest health advocates by permanently extending stewardship contracting and expanding good-neighbor authority on roughly 193 million acres of national forests. It would also allow the Forest Service to designate "landscape-scale" treatment areas and use expedited permitting authority to protect the areas from insects or disease.

Permanent extension of stewardship contracting has been a top priority for the Obama administration and lawmakers of both parties, as well as conservation groups and logging companies. It allows lands agencies to sell 10-year timber contracts and use the revenue to fund forest health projects such as road improvements, stream restoration, hazardous fuel removal or recreation improvements. While it is used for roughly one-fourth of Forest Service timber harvests, the contracting authority is set to expire in September.

The farm bill's good-neighbor provision is very similar to S. 327, which passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year. It would expand the federal government's authority to partner with state foresters on restoration projects, including bark beetle treatments, across state-federal boundaries. Currently, that authority only exists in Colorado and Utah.

The farm bill would also allow agencies to expand their use of streamlined permitting under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act to projects that reduce a landscape's susceptibility to insect infestations or disease. Old-growth trees must be retained under this authority, "as appropriate to the forest type."

Projects up to 3,000 acres in size could be permitted under a categorical exclusion as long as they follow several restrictions, including: They maximize retention of old growth, consider best available science, are developed through a collaborative process, do not result in new permanent roads, comply with forest plans and do not affect wilderness or wilderness study areas.

"The farm bill provides a broad array of new legal tools to allow the Forest Service to do their job," said Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, which represents loggers that contract with national forests. "It has provisions that provide for streamlined analysis, give stewardship contracts the same liability limitations found in normal timber sales and provisions that will make it easier to manage the national forests."

But Imbergamo said the bill fails to provide the comprehensive overhaul of the Forest Service's timber program that industry was hoping for, including reforms to the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.

Regulations left intact

The House version of the farm bill included several provisions aimed at reducing regulations on farmers and ranchers. The final farm bill, for the most part, passes over those provisions, leaving the environmental regulatory regime intact.

The final version, for example, would not include a House provision that required EPA to consult with the Agriculture Department in adopting modeling that measures nutrient runoff in the Chesapeake Bay region. It also would not include a provision that invalidates a 2009 court ruling that forced EPA to require new Clean Water Act permits from pesticide users who spray over water.

Nor does it contain a House provision that would prohibit EPA from disclosing personal information on livestock producers, a measure in response to the agency's release to three environmental groups of hundreds of pages of documents last year that contained information on the nation's concentrated animal feeding operations.

A House measure that would have permanently exempted farms from oil spill regulations for storing oil in aboveground tanks was similarly panned.

The final bill does include a measure that would allow for the creation of committees within EPA's Science Advisory Board to examine regulatory matters that relate to farming, ranching and agriculture. The section would require the board to make every effort to maximize public transparency, including making scientific and technical information publicly available on EPA's website.

The provision, though, is a far cry from a measure contained in the House version of the farm bill that would have quashed all rules found to be not based on "sound science" that was opposed by scientists and environmentalists in Congress (E&E Daily, Dec. 20, 2013).

Other provisions

The bill would not eliminate USDA's catfish inspection program, a big win for Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Cochran, who used the program as a bargaining chip with his fellow congressional negotiators.

The bill, though, would eliminate a House provision that would have provided support for researching and protecting pollinators. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) yesterday slammed its elimination: "If we don't have pollinators, we don't have any food."

National commodity crop groups, such as the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association, urged swift passage of the bill. A coalition of livestock groups, though, have threatened to oppose the bill because it does nothing to eliminate USDA's country of origin labeling regulations -- a move that the livestock groups warn will lead to retaliations from U.S. trading partners.

"Is this a perfect document? I don't know that I've ever seen one come across the floor," Lucas said in response to the criticism. "I will say that, in good faith, the reform and savings and the way we went about this, I really think we tried to address all these issues."

Reporters Nick Juliano and Phil Taylor contributed.

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