U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson said Tuesday that the long-awaited farm bill is nearly finalized and could be passed as early as next week.
The bill should be filed Monday, the House should take it up Wednesday or Thursday and the Senate the day after that. It would have been introduced this week if not for the funeral of President George H.W. Bush, whose death prompted cancellation of votes in the House for the week.
"With any luck it'll be passed by the end of next week, but knowing how things go around here it may drag into the week after," said Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.
The five-year bill mostly maintains the status quo in the nation's agriculture industry, but it includes extra help for dairy farmers and a modest expansion of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Peterson said. Republican efforts to overhaul the food stamp program have been mostly unsuccessful, he said.
The bill maintains two programs that offer loss coverage and price guarantees for farmers, and it will allow farmers to switch back and forth between the programs. The draft will also, by a complicated mechanism, guarantee break-even milk prices for dairy farmers with about 240 cows or less.
"They're the ones that need it the worst," Peterson said in a meeting with reporters at Fleming Field in South St. Paul.
The bill also includes $300 million in funding for animal disease detection, protection and preparedness.
Peterson said the bill is far from perfect - he would have liked to set higher crop-price guarantees for farmers - but it was the best politically possible compromise.
"It's a damn wonder we are where we are," Peterson said. "This might be the last farm bill. It just seems like it gets worse every time. The Congress has become more and more urban and suburban. This last election made that even more so. And so the problem is you've got maybe 30 people out of 435 that have enough agriculture in their district to vote for a bill based on what the agriculture part of it is. The rest of them don't understand and don't care."
Asked why he didn't want to wait until next year to finalize a farm bill with a Democratic majority in Congress when he will likely be chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, he said it wouldn't have been to farm states' advantage.
"What am I going to do with a Democratic caucus that is 95 percent urban and suburban?" he said.
He said "all the farm groups" are backing the current form of the bill, farmers are anxious for the bill to pass and it wouldn't be "sensible" to walk away now and start again in 2019.
The Conservation Reserve Program, a federal payout to farmers to convert cropland into grassland, will expand by 3 million acres under the bill, Peterson said. Since 2007, Congress has lowered the nationwide cap on acres from 40 million to 24 million, and this would reverse that trend.
Peterson said enough farmers might not be able to get financing for 2019 planting that emergency action from Congress may be necessary next year, but CRP could be part of the solution, as a way to discourage overproduction of low-priced row crops.
"The way we got out of this in the 1980s was 45 million acres of CRP. That's how we got out of low prices," Peterson said. "That's the cheapest way to do it, to take the land out of production."
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