MITCHELL, S.D. — In an 87-to-13 vote on Tuesday, Dec. 11, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that one of South Dakota’s senators said will provide farmers with certainty and flexibility. On Wednesday, the House passed the bill, sending it to President Trump’s desk.
This is the fourth farm bill to which Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., has contributed. After two years of work on this particular bill and with a House-Senate compromise worked out earlier this month, Thune hopes the bill will soon be signed into law.
“Obviously, every farm bill represents kind of a consensus, but this was a very pro-agriculture, pro-farmer farm bill, and that was our goal from the very beginning,” Thune said in a phone interview Wednesday. “... It’ll provide the certainty that farmers and ranchers need.”
Thune said that of the approximately 20 provisions he worked on that made it into the Senate bill, nearly all the ideas behind them came from the suggestions and complaints of South Dakota’s farmers and ranchers.
For instance, Thune said he heard complaints from farmers about the way Agriculture Risk Coverage payments are calculated; under the provisions of the new bill, payments would be determined by farmland’s physical location rather than the current administrative, county-determined method. Thune said the bill heavily emphasizes crop insurance.
“South Dakota is, in terms of agriculture, very dependent upon the crop insurance program,” he said. “The crop insurance program in this bill is strong; it continues to provide the basic sort of cornerstone in terms of a safety net for farmers during a tough time.”
One change that could give farmers more flexibility would allow them to join, leave or switch between Agriculture Risk Coverage, which was implemented in the last farm bill, and Price Loss Coverage, both of which are commodity title programs.
Many of the provisions worked on by Thune have to do with conservation, and more specifically the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to not use environmentally-sensitive land for agricultural production. As with Agriculture Risk Coverage, farmers enrolled with CRP are currently locked into multi-year contracts, but the bill eliminates that restriction and offers farmers an alternative to CRP: the Soil Health and Income Protection Program.
Under the current law, farmers who enroll in CRP are locked into contracts, usually for 10 to 15 years. Under SHIPP, enrollment would last for three to five years, and additional changes would give farmers more flexibility in how to use their acreage, allowing them to use more of that land for things like haying and grazing.
“It’s the first time in the 30-plus-year history of CRP that farmers are going to have the opportunity to enroll in a short-term, conserving-use program like this one,” Thune said. “That was a big win.”
The bill would also increase the maximum amount of farmland permitted to be enrolled in CRP from 24 million to 27 million acres.
While Thune said he was happy with the bill overall, there were some elements he and other senators hoped to include that didn’t make it into the final draft.
“One of the things in my experience with the farm bills is, it tends to be kind of a regional battle more so than a political battle. It’s not so much Republicans and Democrats as north versus south or east versus west,” he said. “The commodities that we raise and grow in South Dakota, whether that’s corn, soybeans, wheat, livestock, we’re always in competition with the rice and cotton and peanut growers in the south about how resources get allocated, which programs get adopted in the farm bill.”
Thune also hoped to include the work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients, but that including those provisions would have prevented the bill from being passed in the Senate.
Thune said that of the legislative measures he’s worked on, those dealing with agriculture are some of the most important.
In 2017, South Dakota received more subsidies than all but seven other states, and 74 percent of South Dakota farms received some sort of subsidy. In 2017, nearly $1.04 billion distributed among 78,022 farmers, according to information from the Environmental Working Group and the USDA.
“I’ve worked on a lot of other stuff — tax bills, trade, transportation, highways, railroads, safety issues, things like that,” Thune said, “but when it comes to our state’s No. 1 industry, you cannot underestimate the impact that a prosperous and profitable ag economy has on our state economy.”