Sen. Tim Johnson said Tuesday he hopes a five-year farm bill emerges during the upcoming lameduck session of Congress.
The Senate passed a farm bill with strong support from both Republicans and Democrats in June, and both Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat, and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., voted for it. But it stalled in the House, and no bill has emerged from that body as the end of the year approaches.
"I can encourage the House to take up the farm bill as soon as possible," Johnson said during a meeting in Huron with farmers and others with ties to agriculture. "The House should pass something similar to the Senate bill."
He said a six-month or one-year extension of the bill is an option, but the best solution would be for the House to pass it during this shortened session, and then have the two versions forged into one during a conference committee before President Obama can sign it into law.
"I can't understand why they won't pass a bill," Johnson said of the House.
The five-year, Senate-passed farm bill provides producers with long-term certainty, he said. It strengthens crop insurance, reauthorizes livestock disaster assistance and ends direct payments. It reduces the deficit by $23 billion over 10 years.
Direct payments, which were added to the farm bill in 1996 after other price supports were dropped, provide money to farmers for not planting, no matter what the price for the crops is at the time. The payments help keep supply down and prices up. The direct payments targeted for termination are distinct from payments made as part of conservation programs.
With record prices for corn, and farmers reporting bulging bins and wallets, there has been a growing call for an end to the payments, and a reliance on crop insurance that is payable only when crops fail.
In 2011, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department, farmers received about $10.6 billion in direct payments. That's 10 percent of the record net cash income of $108.7 billion for the farm industry.
Some Midwest farmers welcome the end of direct payments, which will also mean restrictions on what can be planted and harvested will be lifted. However, many southern producers say crop insurance will not provide enough of a safety net for them, and want the direct payments retained.
Now, since the last farm bill expired at the end of September, livestock disaster assistance programs have expired. No new Conservation Reserve Program, Grasslands Reserve Program, or Wetlands Reserve Program contracts can be issued.
Johnson said the Senate version of the bill dropped direct payments to guarantee crop insurance remained strong and viable.
"It's a pretty good farm bill to make that tradeoff," he said. "But those in the House of Representatives are giving us a hard time about it. They don't have a farm bill of their own yet. Speaker (John) Boehner said they will have a hard time getting the votes for a farm bill. But hope remains eternal."
Johnson met with representatives of the South Dakota Farmers Union at the Crossroads Hotel in Huron. Farmers and people with ties to agriculture attended the meeting and offered comments during a roundtable discussion with Johnson. He asked questions of them and then offered his view on how things may play out in Washington, D.C.
"There's quite a bit of uncertainty out there with no farm bill," said Gerald Bischoff, a rural Huron farmer.
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