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Farm bill details released: What it means for Minnesota, from farming to food stamps

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Debris flies through the air as corn is transferred to a tractor.
Debris made of shredded corn stalks and husks fly through the air as harvested corn kernels pour into a tractor trailer on the Collins Family Farms in Murdock, Minn., in October 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

Updated: 4:25 p.m. | Posted: Midnight

Details of an $867 billion bill that funds food stamps, crop insurance, conservation and other agriculture-related programs have been released to the public as the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, otherwise known as the farm bill.

The U.S. Senate approved the farm bill Tuesday afternoon, and the House is expected to vote on it this week. Meanwhile, commodity groups, environmentalists and advocates for the poor are studying the details to see if changes are coming to the programs they care about. The bill text released Monday night is the result of a House and Senate conference committee working out differences between two versions of the bill. 

"We had a very robust debate on virtually every title of the farm bill," Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, told reporters during a news conference. "It's a compromise."

The legislation is 540 pages long with lots of confusing details, but here's a breakdown of some of the bill's major provisions, with an eye toward how they affect Minnesota. 

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

This program accounts for about 80 percent of farm bill spending. The final version of the bill does not include additional work requirements House GOP leaders had wanted, but there are some provisions aimed at preventing fraud. 

House Republicans had also wanted to reduce funding for SNAP, but the compromise language maintains funding. 

Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said she's pleased the bill doesn't make getting nutrition assistance more difficult.

"The bill expands access to healthy food by investing in food insecurity nutrition incentives, increases job training, and it also creates a national clearing house to prevent individuals from receiving SNAP benefits in multiple states," she said.

Piper said 11 percent of Minnesotans received SNAP benefits at some point in the past two years. On average, those households receive $112 per month. 

Dairy farmers

The 2014 farm bill's safety net for most farm crops remains largely unchanged in the 2018 bill, with what farm groups are calling only minor adjustments. 

But the safety net will be significantly stronger for the dairy industry. Marin Bozic, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, said it will be much cheaper for small dairy farmers to buy what is essentially insurance against low prices. 

"The farm bill was designed to protect only the first 200 [or] 250 cows," Bozic said, "so it was designed to target smaller family farms with maybe mom and pop involved in the farm or maybe a few kids and maybe a few hired hands but the smaller operation." 

CRP area
A water drainage area separates tillable farmland in Greenvale Township, Minn., in 2011. The drainage area, part of the Conservation Reserve Program, uses the natural environment to drain and filter water from the field.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2011

Bozic thinks the provision will save some small dairy operations in Minnesota. By the end of the month, he said, the state will have lost nearly 10 percent of its dairy farms this year.

Getting a farm bill passed was critical for dairy farmers, so they can bring a financial plan to their bankers, said Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association. 

"Without a farm bill, that lender's gonna look and say, 'Hey you know, I don't know what the future's going to look like for you. The answer is no,'" he said. "With this farm bill, that lender, in partnership with his dairy farmers and all crop farmers, frankly, is going to know exactly what they're going to need to do to be successful together."

Mental health

At a time when farmers are under stress because of low prices and trade wars, the bill commissions a report on the state of behavioral and mental health among farmers and ranchers. It appropriates $10 million a year to be used for training programs and workshops for advocates who assist farmers in crisis. 

Minnesota has a farm and rural help line, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has been working to connect farmers under stress with the resources they need. 

Conservation

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays landowners to preserve land from being plowed for crops, will grow 3 million acres to 27 million acres, but payments will be capped. 

Minnesota has about 1.1 million acres enrolled in the program. States like Kansas, North Dakota, Montana and Iowa are among a handful of others that have more than 1 million acres enrolled. 

The CRP was also amended to provide less support for special pollinator-friendly seed mixes. Pollinator protection has been a priority for Gov. Mark Dayton's administration and many environmental groups. 

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) remains in place, but its funding is cut in the 2018 farm bill. The program pays farmers who enter into multi-year contracts with the government to carry out multiple conservation practices on their land, such as reducing pesticide drift and planting cover crops. 

Minnesota has been among the top recipients for CSP dollars over time.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) gets a $275 million-per-year boost as Congressional leaders reallocated money from the Conservation Stewardship Program. 

EQIP pays farmers to adopt conservation improvements — there are more than 200 practices that qualify — to address problems such as water pollution and soil erosion. California and Texas have been the top recipients of EQIP money over the years, but Minnesota and other states in the Midwest have also collected a large share of the funds.

Ian Cunningham, who serves as chairman of the Pipestone County Soil and Water Conservation District, said he predicts conservation will increase in Minnesota through federal programs and state sales tax funds from the Legacy Amendment.

He said those who oversee conservation at the local level are happy the bill maintained overall funding levels for programs. 

"We think that's a big victory," said Cunningham, who also serves on the executive board for the National Association of Conservation Districts. "To have healthy soil and clean water is the main thing, and we can produce that with several tools."

Rural broadband

Broadband in rural areas also gets a boost in the 2018 farm bill, which sets aside $350 million dollars for loans and grants. The money is specifically targeted to rural communities that don't have broadband, or have slow broadband service.

A recent report from the state Governor's Task Force on Broadband shows that Minnesota is making progress, with about 90 percent of households able to access internet speeds of 25 megabits per second or higher. 

Hemp

A provision in the new fam bill that legalizes industrial hemp has gotten a lot of attention. But it is unclear how much hemp production will expand across the country under looser regulations than its potent cousin, marijuana. Under the new bill, states or tribes will be able to develop a plan for hemp production.

One of several varieties of industrial hemp plants at a research plot.
Industrial hemp plants -- one of several varieties -- grow at a research plot near Callaway, Minn., in 2017.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News 2017

Commercial hemp has a tiny footprint in Minnesota: Just 710 acres of hemp were planted in 2018 compared to 7.8 million acres of corn. Hemp is used for fiber and also to make a popular health supplement called CBD oil.