- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - The legislative fight in Washington over the nation’s new farm bill may be over, but North Dakota lawmakers say their work on it is hardly done.

The state’s congressional delegation said it will quickly redirect its efforts toward ensuring the massive new bill does what it says it will do and works best for the state. Among the key tasks going forward: maintaining oversight of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ensuring that new conservation provisions and other elements of the bill are put in place as planned, and pressing federal officials to give emergency relief to ranchers.

That task started in earnest on Wednesday.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., joined Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. and other senators in pressing U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to expedite the implementation of a livestock disaster program included in the new farm bill. In a letter to Vilsack, they note that more than 20,000 cattle, sheep, horses and bison were killed during an October blizzard that pounded South Dakota, and parts of North Dakota and Nebraska.

The letter urges Vilsack to make a top priority of implementing the reauthorized program - which could deliver millions of dollars in emergency relief to ranchers. They noted that the last time Congress enacted a farm bill, in 2008, it took just over a year for ranchers to receive payment for routine cattle losses.

The early lobbying to quickly implement that provision reflects a reality of the massive, 5-year, $100-billion a year bill. It delivers security to farmers and something for virtually everyone connected to agriculture, but its scope and size mean it contains many moving parts that will need to be monitored, lawmakers said.

“My concern isn’t so much what got left out or what’s in, as how it is implemented,” said Heitkamp. “We’ll have to do everything to make sure it’s implemented according to congressional intent.”

Added Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.: “It’s a lot of work, and we have to make sure it’s done well.”

Besides pressing for quick implementation of the livestock provisions, Hoeven and Heitkamp said they were most concerned about the bill’s language on conservation.

The bill passed by the Senate on Tuesday includes $57.6 billion for conservation programs. Both senators said they were comfortable with money dedicated to conservation efforts but wanted to make sure the programs didn’t overreach and hurt farmers.

“It might create a difficult situation for producers,” if we don’t monitor it, Heitkamp said. “So we want to make sure we start this program out right and that we don’t see the USDA overreaching.”

Hoeven served on the conference committee that blended the House and Senate versions of the bill. He said the conservation provisions were the most important issue to monitor going forward because their success hinges on them being put in place in “farmer-friendly” way.

The new farm bill requires farmers who seek government subsidized crop insurance to follow certain conservation practices and cuts some subsidies for farmers who farm on protected lands. Hoeven and Heitkamp expressed misgivings about tying subsidies to conservation but both said they believe the situation is workable if it is monitored and applied correctly.

“How USDA chooses to implement it is so important,” he said. “I added language that tries to make it more farmer-friendly and think it will be more effective if it’s done in a farmer-first way.”

The Senate passed the farm bill on Tuesday, less than a week after the House approved the measure, sending it to President Barack Obama. The White House has announced that Obama will sign the bill on Friday in Michigan, which is the home state of Democrat Debbie Stabenow, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.


Follow Henry C. Jackson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hjacksonap

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