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Farm bill expiration causing anxieties for ND's largest farm organization

Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, listens during a panel discussion in 2015 at the North Dakota Livestock Summit held in Bismarck. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK—North Dakota's largest farm organization has its doubts over passage of a new farm bill after the elections.

"They should get the farm bill done," said North Dakota Farmers Union President Mark Watne. "We're really concerned if they don't get something passed before the election the pressure to get something done goes away."

The 2014 Farm Bill expired Sunday, but the four principal negotiators — majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees — have said they hope to come to an agreement for a vote in November or December, avoiding the need for an extension of the current law.

Watne said there's nothing saying lawmakers will get it done in the lame-duck session.

"I think we're still optimistic," North Dakota Farm Bureau Director of Public Policy Pete Hanebutt said in contrast. "Obviously, it's annoying nothing got done before the deadline ... But it's hard to imagine they'd go into the next Congress not passing something this time."

Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he's also confident a farm bill can get passed.

"When things start to break they tend to break fast," he said, as long as some movement can be made.

He said he thinks most lawmakers are going to find it more politically advantageous to pass something than not.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., also expressed sentiments last week to the Grand Forks Herald that he thought an agreement on a new bill is still possible.

But farm bill passage has been known for expirations and extensions. The 2014 farm bill took 21 months and two Congresses to finish, replacing the 2008 version.

Watne said, if it doesn't happen in the lame-duck, "we don't know what the new Congress looks like. We don't know if what's on the table stays on the table."

He indicated lawmakers need to get beyond the work requirement changes for SNAP proposed by House Republicans, "which is not going to pass the Senate anyway," in order to ensure the crop insurance safety net remains.

"We need certainty. We need to know going into fall with low prices we have some sort of a backstop," Watne said,

Programs, such as crop insurance and SNAP, formerly known food stamps, will continue despite the expiration, as crop insurance for the current crop year is already set.

Other programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, will continue but cannot make new agreements. But trade promotion and rural development programs are among those shut down.

"Congress is sending the wrong message to farmers and ranchers in the middle of harvest who desperately need certainty and are instead now being told they won't get it," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said in a statement.

Watne said he thinks the House should have gone along with the Senate bill because it had support from both parties.

"The fact the House version passed along party lines means they didn't reach across the aisles enough," he said.

Hanebutt's organization is more in favor of the House version because it got rid of unpopular wetlands and Waters of the U.S. regulations.

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