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Despite divisions, Farm Bill still a priority for passage

WASHINGTON—An attempt to pass a 2018 Farm Bill collapsed in the House of Representatives earlier this month, leaving farmers and ranchers tapping their feet, waiting for Congress to act on the vital package of crop insurance, food assistance and other programs that expires in late September.

The bill failed on May 18 in a 213-198 vote. Many Democrats resisted food stamp work requirements, while the chamber's Republicans were divided over a separate immigration dispute — leaving Arthur, N.D., farmer Kevin Skunes hoping to see action soon.

"We were disheartened the vote didn't pass," said Skunes, the president of the National Corn Growers Association. He fretted over the limited number of days Congress will be in session before the current bill expires. "An extension (of the bill) would be one way to go, but we're really not looking forward to that, either."

Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said the failed vote is typical of an increasingly divided Washington. Not only was an immigration debate conflated with the Farm Bill, but he said he's disappointed there weren't more "hearings and debate and discussion a long time ago." As a result, he takes a dim view of the bill's future, which he said now likely runs through the Senate, and which he also fears could be stuck in bureaucratic limbo until January, forcing an extension of the current legislation.

Watne added that he hopes to see crop insurance "held whole" and a farmer-friendly tweak in the price loss coverage program. He said SNAP benefits — more commonly known as food stamps — will likely need to stay unchanged to woo urban politicians' support.

The bill is hugely important for Upper Midwest farmers, many of whom count on its financial provisions. North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said that, in recent years, the bill has "infused" $240 million to $390 million into the state's agricultural economy when markets have needed it.

"It helps those producers weather some of those storms and they live to fight another day," Goehring said.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., voted against the bill. The ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, he previously voiced disapproval with the bill's drafting process and changes to food stamp work requirements. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., supported the bill, and expressed disappointment in an interview this week that colleagues in his own party were willing to "shoot the hostage" in a bid to vote on immigration legislation.

"From a policy standpoint, I like the bill a lot," Cramer said. "The strategy really became the problem — the strategy for passage."

Cramer added that he expects House votes both on immigration policy and again on the Farm Bill in June.

Senators from Minnesota and North Dakota expressed a sense of urgency to push ahead with their own chamber's Farm Bill draft. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said such a bill could be considered in committee during the first week of June, with a vote in the Senate "as soon as possible" afterwards.

"I know the ag community in Minnesota has been in a tough place with low commodity prices for the past few years, and uncertainty about a Farm Bill passing only adds to their worry," Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., said in a statement provided by her office. "We owe it to farmers in Minnesota and across the nation to get this done, and I want to make sure we're supporting the next generation of farmers."

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

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