- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - A massive, five-year farm bill set for a Wednesday floor vote in the U.S. House gives North Dakota farmers and ranchers certainty they need to make long-term planning decisions, legislators and agriculture officials say.

“Passing a strong, long-term farm bill is a top priority for us, so that our producers will have the confidence and tools they need to run their operations,” Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement.

Hoeven, who was on the conference committee that completed the bill Monday, said the legislation enhances crop insurance, renews a program to help sugar beet farmers, supports agricultural research and includes good conservation tools.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said other highlights include the reauthorization of livestock disaster programs that will help blizzard-stricken ranchers and a compensation program that will help flooded Devils Lake farmers.

“I’m confident that this farm bill strikes the right balance to make sure a strong safety net will be provided to North Dakota’s diverse agricultural system, which leads the nation in the production of over 13 different commodities,” Heitkamp said in a statement.

House passage of the bill, which would spend almost $100 billion a year and would save around $2.3 billion annually, is far from assured. Conservatives in the House have bucked party leadership repeatedly on the farm bill, saying it does little to curb government spending and does not make significant enough cuts to government food stamp programs.

The bill contains cuts to the food stamp program - $800 million a year, or around 1 percent - for Republicans who say the program is spending too much money, but the reductions are low enough that some Democrats will support them.

The new farm bill would still heavily subsidize major crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton. But it moves many of the subsidies into insurance programs and eliminates so-called direct payments, the $4.5 billion-a-year subsidy currently paid to farmers whether they farm or not.

“We’re really pleased. About 80 percent of what we wanted is in the bill,” said Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, which has about 40,000 members.

Watne said passage of a farm bill provides certainty for lenders and producers.

“It really helps when farmers and ranchers are trying to round up their operating cash,” he said.

Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, said her group is pleased with a provision that would allow ranchers to recoup some of their losses due to natural disasters.

“Disaster assistance is the piece we are most happy with,” Ellingson said. “It is our No. 1 priority.”

The provision would be backdated to when the programs expired in 2011. Ellingson said the reauthorization of the livestock disaster program will help cattle ranchers in the Dakotas who lost thousands of animals in an early October blizzard.

Flooded Devils Lake farmers would be compensated in a provision within the nearly 1,000-page bill.

Devils Lake has swallowed more than 160,000 of acres of farmland and pastures since a wet cycle began in the early 1990s and caused the lake to quadruple in size.

Eric Aasmundstad, who raises grain in the area, has lost more than 2,000 acres to the lake’s rising waters. He said most farmers in the area would rather see excess lake water drained than be compensated for lost land.

“Throwing a few dollars at this does not do anything of substance,” said Aasmundstad, a former president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, a farm advocacy organization with more than 27,000 members.


Associated Press writer Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report from Washington.

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