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Farm bill urgency: Agriculture's silver lining

A farmer harvests the last few corn stalks in a field in northwest Hanson County in this file photo. (Republic file photo)

There's a bright side to the bad weather that scorched the fields of farmers this season.

Despite an improved outlook backed by a break from the early summer sun, corn production is forecasted to drop in South Dakota this year. But U.S. Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, sees a ray of hope amid an arduous season in agriculture.

"I think the economic times we're in, in agriculture, will create more of a sense of urgency out there that we need to have some creative thinking and we need to have a budget to provide a safety net for our providers," Thune told The Daily Republic last week.

But the three-time farm bill veteran, who's now working on his fourth as a member of Congress, said there's always an underlying challenge in moving the massive legislation forward.

"It's always hard to pass a farm bill, particularly when you've got members of Congress who don't have ag constituency or farm programs," Thune said.

While drought conditions and the subsequent difficulties farmers and ranchers have been forced to overcome this year could expedite farm bill talks, Thune has already made several efforts to keep the farm bill in the limelight.

From March to August, Thune's office unveiled five pieces of legislation meant to build off the most recent farm bill, formally known as the Agricultural Act of 2014. The measures have been wide-ranging, touching on five different titles of the 13-title farm bill.

Among them is a measure to raise the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) cap nationwide to 30 million acres, up from 24 million acres. When he released the plan in April, Thune said South Dakota was expected to lose 57 percent of its existing CRP acres throughout the 2018 farm bill, but his bill would provide a big boost to the acreage cap.

If accepted as part of the farm bill, South Dakota's target for CRP acreage would be 1.4 million, 10,000 acres higher than the current 10-year average. And Thune said the bill could help avoid situations where one state is getting more CRP acreage approved than others.

"When we've had farmers who have tried to get land in, they've been turned down, and all the land that's been going in have been going in Colorado and places like that," Thune said. "Makes no sense."

Other bills would help streamline the U.S. Forest Service's ability to rapidly salvage dead and dying trees after severe weather events, simplify the crop insurance program in relation to multi-county farms, update the Livestock Forage Program and Livestock Indemnity Program and establish a new CRP-like program with a shorter time commitment for conservation.

With five bills already introduced and coming off a rough season for farmers and ranchers, Thune suggested the next iteration of the farm bill may move along more swiftly than it has previously.

"Most of the farm bills that we've written in my time in office have been in a time of good commodity prices, so this is one of the rare times when we've got — when we're kind of in the tank," Thune said. "So we're hoping that that will at least provide an additional push to get this thing done and maybe allow us to get some new ideas into it."

Crop insurance is king

Like Thune, South Dakota's corn growers are also well aware of next year's farm bill talks, and the top priority is crystal clear.

Troy Knecht, a Houghton area farmer who serves as president of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, said he wants to see the funding for crop insurance maintain its current rate.

"Whatever we can do to maintain that just as it is," Knecht said. "We gave up some last time, some crop insurance funding, and we'd like to see that remain the same.'

And South Dakota Corn Utilization Council Executive Director Lisa Richardson agreed that crop insurance is the critical piece to the farm bill puzzle, particularly because corn is susceptible to adverse weather.

"Most of our land in this state is covered under crop insurance, and that's how farmers get financed," Richardson said. "And with the uncertainty of Mother Nature, that's our critical need."

Beyond crop insurance, Knecht said other issues should be on the front burner.

Farm bill issues trade and CRP are also critical, Knecht said, and the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP) proposed by Thune is of interest to corn growers. The SHIPP program would require a three- to five-year commitment for conservation while CRP requires a commitment of 10 to 15 years.

"That's kind of what the SHIPP program is, it's a shorter term program that allows you to do some haying out there and things like that, and I think that's the kind of conservation programs we like to see going forward," Knecht said.