By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
OMAHA (DTN) -- The U.S. Senate voted overwhelming Tuesday afternoon to finalize the new farm bill, the "Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018," just a day after putting the finishing touches on the conference report.
The decision to bring the farm bill conference report to a quick vote was a surprise announced by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and the bill was approved on an 87-13 vote.
The House should now advance the bill out its Rules Committee for a final floor vote as well, though a Tuesday afternoon hearing was delayed. At a House Republican leadership press conference on Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., urged House members to vote for the farm bill.
Although the bill does not contain the stiffer work requirements for food stamp beneficiaries that were in the House bill, Ryan said, "This bill strengthens work requirements and boosts work supports, so that more people are spurred toward opportunities."
With expectations the House will approve the farm bill, it will be sent on to President Donald Trump, who also is expected to sign the legislation.
Among the surprise "no" votes in the Senate was Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a strong advocate for farmers who still farms himself. Grassley has pushed for years for tighter farm-payment limits and actively engaged rules. The final conference report largely went with changes made in the House bill that opened up farm payments to cousins, nephews and nieces without addressing tighter active-engagement requirements to receive payments that Grassley had championed.
On the Senate floor, Roberts said the farm bill provides certainty and predictability to farmers in all regions and in all crops. The bill also maintains program integrity for food-assistance programs while addressing other key areas such as research funding, lines of credit and risk management in agriculture.
"It means providing the tools and then getting out of the producer's way," Roberts said. He later closed with, "Let us tell those farmers, ranchers and growers who are going through tough times that they are going to be good for the next five years," Roberts said, noting ag lenders also were watching.
Sen. Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, emphasized that the Senate worked to create a "hard-fought, bipartisan agreement to strengthen the diversity of agriculture and the 16 million jobs it supports." Stabenow stressed the need for the farm bill to invest in diversity of farms, whether they are large or small. She pointed to new investments in areas ranging from trade-promotion programs to farmer-market and local foods programs.
"We need to be able to sell around the world, and we need to be able to sell in our own communities," Stabenow said.
Some of the major provisions in the farm bill include:
-- Price Loss Coverage reference prices are changed to use a five-year Olympic average of prices that would allow reference prices to increase as much as 15% for commodity crops. The higher reference prices would be used for both the PLC and Agricultural Risk Coverage programs. After 2021, farmers would also be allowed to switch crops annually between ARC and PLC as well. In 2020, farmers will also have the option of updating yield data for each commodity up to 90% of the average yield for the farm from the 2013-17 crop years.
-- Increases the marketing loan rates by about 15% for corn to $2.20 a bushel, $2.50 for barley, about a 5% increase for sugar beets to 23 cents a pound and 24% for soybeans to $6.20 a bushel.
-- In crop insurance, the bill improves products for forage and grazing insurance.
-- Boosts the Conservation Reserve Program from 24 million to 27 million acres while lowering the rental payment to 85% of the average county rate for general sign up and 90% for continuous signup.
-- Direct loans from the Farm Service Agency will increase, with operating loan limits rising to $400,000. Loan guarantees would be increased to $1.75 million, and direct loans for farm ownership would be increased to $600,000.
-- Raises margin protection for dairy producers to $9.50 coverage for feed costs and offers more coverage options for producers with the first 5 million pounds of milk. Dairy farmers can also get 25% lower premiums by locking in coverage over a five-year period. Premiums also are reduced for large Tier II dairy operations.
-- Allows nieces, nephews and cousins to qualify for commodity programs while keeping the individual payment limit at $125,000. The bill also keeps the adjusted gross income (AGI) cap at $900,000, the same as current law.
-- Creates mandatory funding for a national animal lab network and a vaccine bank to defend against invasive livestock diseases.
-- Legalizes hemp as a crop and also creates insurance products for hemp producers.
-- With rural broadband, the bill gives USDA more authority to make grants for rural-broadband access, as well as more loan authority for such projects in communities.
-- In rural health, the bill puts emphasis on mental health with more tools to address opioid addiction, as well as reestablishes the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network to deal with farmers facing mental stresses. The bill also provides authority for USDA to help address other rural emergency needs.
DTN Political Correspondent Jerry Hagstrom contributed to this report.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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