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Daines: Farm Bill will reach president’s desk with ‘wins’ for Montana farms, forests

Sen. Steve Daines

A Farm Bill will pass muster in both the U.S. House and Senate and reach President Donald Trump’s desk well before the current bill expires on Sept. 30, Montana Sen. Steve Daines predicted Tuesday.

That’s crucial, he said, “to provide some certainty for Montana agriculture in these rather difficult and uncertain times.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that net farm income will be 52 percent less in 2018 than it was five years ago, Daines said during an afternoon conference call with reporters.

“So we must at least remove the uncertainty of not having a Farm Bill,” he said.

The escalating trade war between the United States and China also has Montana farmers and ranchers on edge, the senator said when questioned by reporters.

In retaliation for the Trump administration’s imposition of tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese products, China has vowed to levy an additional 25 percent tariff on agriculture imports from the United States, including Montana beef.

But Daines said the Farm Bill has no mechanism by which to reduce the anxiety or uncertainty created by the hostile trade environment.

“We won’t be able to provide market certainty in the Farm Bill,” he said. “But we are providing certainty in terms of protecting crop insurance,” a safety net for the nation’s farmers.

Daines also said he successfully protected the sugar program, which ensures that Montana farmers can compete on a level playing field against foreign competition.

And he said he and other senators have spoken directly with the White House about the importance of the U.S. and China resolving their trade differences.

“Trade should be free, it should be fair,” Daines said. “And that means China must be confronted with some of their trade practices. But the issues need to be resolved, so we can again open up the China market.”

The U.S. House passed its version of the Farm Bill last week. The Senate is debating the bill on the floor this week, including a “myriad” of amendments, Daines reported. “I anticipate we are going to get that passed this week in the Senate.”

Then the two differing measures will move to a House-Senate conference committee for resolution, followed by another set of votes in the full chambers, and the eventual trip to the president’s desk.

“We’re off to a very good start,” Daines said.

“We’ve got good bipartisan support for the bill,” he said. The measure passed 20-1 out of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, of which Daines is a member. “We got some good wins.”

The bill now being debated includes the Hemp Farming Act, which Daines signed onto as a cosponsor and which would legalize hemp as an agricultural commodity and remove it from the list of controlled substances.

“Each state can decide on its own whether to allow hemp cultivation,” he said Tuesday. “Hemp and hemp extracts can be used in a wide range of consumer goods – for food and other products. It’s a valuable cash crop for some Montana farmers.”

His support, Daines said, is simply about “putting hemp as another option for Montana farmers.”

The same thing happened with pulse crops not that long ago, he said, and now Montana is the largest producer of pulse crops.

“Our farmers need more diversity,” he said.

Daines said he has 10 or 12 amendments he is trying to squeeze into the Farm Bill during this week’s floor debates, if he can gather the necessary support from Senate Democrats.

Most of those are related to national forest management and litigation that can stop or slow timber sales.

Daines said one measure would establish a Region 1 pilot project requiring arbitration for a select number of timber sales in an attempt to “demonstrate the ability to use this to settle a dispute more quickly and more cost effectively” – rather than resolving an issue in court.

“To put this in perspective, in Region 1 we have 29 timber sales under litigation as we speak, at this moment,” the senator said. “And there are 20 injunctions in place against timber sales across Montana and Idaho.”

“We recognize there may be disputes, so we’re saying let’s look at a pilot program, test this idea to use arbitration,” he said. “The trial lawyers are winning right now and the people of Montana are losing because of the litigious nature of some groups.”

The Senate bill does not, however, expand the use of categorical exclusions – where timber sales move forward with less review and without appeal – and Daines said he will not offer any amendments to that effect.

The House bill does expand the use of categorical exclusions.

Daines said he was able to interject a number of forest management reforms into the Farm Bill already, including:

  • A provision that encourages coordination among the Forest Service and state forestry agencies to conduct projects that cross boundaries under their jurisdiction in order to restore forests and reduce the risk of wildfire.
  • An amendment that allows the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to enter into “Good Neighbor” agreements with counties, as well as states and tribes, to implement forest management projects on national forests and public lands. These agreements protect water resources, enhance wildlife habitat, restore forest health, and strengthen local economies.
  • Inclusion of the Timber Innovation Act, which will help support innovation and develop new markets for Montana’s timber industry.
  • Amendments to include $15 million in additional funding for the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) and increase funding for improving wildlife habitat and opportunities for sportsmen. The VPA-HIP program provides competitive grants to states and tribal governments to increase public access to private lands for wildlife-dependent recreation, such as hunting, fishing, nature watching or hiking. The program is entirely voluntary for landowners.