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Johnson, Thune fret over farm bill details

As negotiations over a new farm bill continue on Capitol Hill, South Dakota’s senators are worried about the fate of reforms they fought to include in the Senate version of the bill.

Southern interests are fighting to remove the caps on payments to farmers that were championed by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said a provision linking crop insurance subsidies to participation in conservation programs is under siege. Both spoke to reporters Wednesday during separate conference calls.

Johnson said he worked with other senators to craft language that placed a hard cap on direct payments to farmers and would “ensure that only individuals actually engaged in the operations of a farm are able to receive payments.”

“That language has come under attack by some on the conference committee,” Johnson said. “I find it ironic that members of Congress who want to tighten the requirements of eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) Program are the same members who want to loosen eligibility requirements for farm programs. The farm bill needs to maintain this language in order to maintain the legitimacy of farm programs and to balance out the disproportionate share of payments currently going to big farms.”

Both Johnson and Thune said they are watching a “sodsaver” provision that would reduce crop insurance premium subsidies for farmers who plow up prairie to grow crops.

“That is a really important provision that closes a crop insurance loophole,” Thune said.

Johnson said he is working with other senators to extend the wind energy production tax credit but added that the sector is “especially subject to a lack of long-term thinking.”

Johnson repeated his call to keep the country-of-origin meat-labeling law that he worked for years to get passed into law.

Both senators agreed that livestock disaster provisions are needed, especially in the wake of the October Atlas blizzard that struck West River cattle herds.

“I’m confident the final farm bill will include these programs,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he does not favor trying to roll an extension of long-term unemployment benefits into the farm bill.

Both senators could support an extension of the existing farm bill while negotiators put the finishing touches on a new one, but Johnson would not support the full month supported by Thune and passed by the House.

“I would as long as it’s a very short extension. One to two weeks will be it,” Johnson said.

Thune said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will not allow a vote on a farm bill extension.

“My preference would be that the Senate act on a one-month extension just to be sure, but Sen. Reid’s got to make that decision. He’s made it very clear he’s not going to move a one-month extension,” Thune said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said his department “has the resources and authority” to stave off any problems — such as a spike in milk prices — in the short term after the current farm law expires at year’s end.

“We’re taking them at their word,” Thune said.