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Farm Bill Compromise Reached With SNAP Changes Out, Industrial Hemp In

Dec 11, 2018
Originally published on December 11, 2018 5:27 pm

Lawmakers unveiled the much-anticipated farm bill compromise Monday night, ending the months-long impasse over whether a critical piece of legislation that provides subsidies to farmers and helps needy Americans buy groceries could pass before the lame-duck session concludes at the end of the year.

The agreement was reached after a proposal — backed by House Republicans and President Trump — to add stricter work requirements for those who receive food stamps was taken off the table.

The behemoth piece of legislation will cost $867 billion over 10 years, according to House committee staffers.

Of course, it's not law just yet.

The bill must still pass both the House and the Senate and be signed into law by the president, but that could come as early as this week.

While much of the farm bill compromise mirrors current law, there is a major change coming for farmers: Industrial hemp will be legalized. It's a boon for the increasingly popular cannabidiol, or CBD oil, industry, which is being used for medicinal purposes.

Forestry was another sticking point that emerged in the final weeks of negotiations, with the White House weighing in on the California wildfires. It didn't get exactly what it wanted, but specific thinning projects ranging from 3,000 acres to 4,500 acres of forest will be exempt from the public comment period.

As for conservation, the bill severely cuts funding for one of the three major programs that pays farmers to use environmentally friendly practices, like cover crops and field rotation. A different program will see more money, and there will be more land that farmers will be paid to fallow.

Changes to food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, emerged as the biggest sticking point between the House and Senate bills and bogged down negotiations since the summer.

The House plan, which passed by the narrowest of margins and without single Democratic vote, called for those who receive the SNAP food subsidy to work more.

Because the stricter work requirements are gone from the final bill, House Democrats are largely poised to vote for its passage.

While the final compromise did preserve some portions of the House bill including some SNAP anti-fraud measures, the compromise bill is largely seen as a win for House Democrats and Senate negotiators.

The Senate's version of the farm bill, which had no controversial changes to SNAP, passed 86-11. The final compromise bill is also expected to enjoy broad bipartisan support.

Lawmakers are hoping for swift passage this week so that it does not get swept into negotiations to keep the government funded beyond next Friday.

Keeping in spirit with the holiday season, Congress gifted itself a little breathing room by last week by punting on a fight over funding the government into late December. This came on the heels of tributes honoring former President George H.W. Bush at both the U.S. Capitol where he lay in state and at the memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral last week.

Bush died late last month at age 94.

Trump had repeatedly weighed in on negotiations saying he wanted stricter work rules in the final bill. Not having stricter work requirements is seen as a setback by conservatives who had made reducing federal safety net programs a top priority with Republicans controlling of both chambers of Congress and the White House.

The outcome of the midterm elections changed the negotiating leverage conservative holdouts had on the work requirement issue. If no deal was reached, the farm bill writing process would start anew under Democratic control of the House when the new Congress is seated in January.

According the Agriculture Department, more than 42 million Americans received SNAP benefits last year. The nutrition section of the farm bill, which includes SNAP, makes up about 80 percent of the farm bill's expenditures.

The Trump administration has hinted at plans to limit states' authority to temporarily suspend work requirements for some food stamp recipients. States can use the waivers citing areas of high unemployment or limited job availability.

Politico reported last week that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue will introduce the proposed rule change after the farm bill passes.

Because the USDA proposal would be a change through regulation, it does not need to be approved by Congress.

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After months of struggle, lawmakers in Washington have reached agreement on a new farm bill. The bill will cost nearly $900 billion over the next 10 years. Grant Gerlock of NET News in Nebraska reports on what's in the bill and what's not.

GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: One of the biggest fights over the huge farm bill had nothing at all to do with farmers. It was about the largest budget item in the bill - the food stamp program, also known as SNAP. House Republicans wanted to double the number of people required to work in order to stay in SNAP. Senate Democrats vowed to block that proposal. The standoff lasted for months. But when the midterms flipped the House, it forced the issue. This morning, House Speaker Paul Ryan endorsed the compromise.


PAUL RYAN: This bill strengthens work requirements and boosts work supports so that more people are spurred toward opportunities.

GERLOCK: That makes it sound like the House proposal is in the bill, but it's not. There is extra money for training programs, but the work requirements were dropped to clear the way for the bill to pass. And that's how it is with much of the farm bill. It makes incremental changes, not structural reforms. That goes for SNAP and Forestry, which leaves out most last-minute demands made by the White House to fast track forest-thinning projects. Some describe this as a status quo bill. It even costs about the same. But Juli Obudzinski of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says there are significant changes. She points to what she calls tiny but mighty programs that the farm bill would make permanent, things like outreach to minority and veteran farmers and training for new farmers.

JULI OBUDZINSKI: We know that these issues, they're not temporary issues, especially the aging farm population and where the next generation of farmers are going to come from.

GERLOCK: The farm bill would more than double research funding for organic farming, and it legalizes hemp for industrial products and medicinal CBD oil, something many farmers hope will become a new, lucrative cash crop. Up to now, only a handful were able to grow it under tight regulations. John Currier farms in the Imperial Valley of Southern California where four generations of his family have grown winter vegetables, like cauliflower, lettuce and broccoli. He now wants to swap those veggies for hemp because he says he can't keep up with farm consolidation.

JOHN CURRIER: I mean, the writing's on the wall that unless you're a big corporate farmer that's year-round in the produce business, you pretty much got to get out of it.

GERLOCK: In the farm bill, states can allow hemp production as long as the crop contains less than 0.3 percent of THC, the compound in marijuana that causes the high. Aspiring hemp farmers like Currier would even be eligible for crop insurance.

CURRIER: I need something else to grow. I mean, this hemp deal's kind of fallen in our lap at the exact perfect time.

GERLOCK: But it's not a done deal until the farm bill reaches President Trump's desk.

MARK NELSON: And it always goes back to politics, and I hate politics; most farmers do.

GERLOCK: That's Mark Nelson, who raises corn, soybeans and cattle near Paola, Kan. Like a lot of farmers, Nelson has been working against a headwind. The trade fight with China has spoiled soybean prices. And on top of that, a drought crashed crop yields. He says crop insurance subsidies, which are mostly unchanged in the farm bill, help him avoid a critical financial blow.

NELSON: And that's what's important for most farmers is just get me to next year. We know we're going to have our ups and downs. We're going to have years where we don't produce and crop insurance helps us with our lenders and banks. And that's all tied to the farm bill.

GERLOCK: A bill that's years in the making and crucial for the people who grow the food we eat. For NPR News, I'm Grant Gerlock.


CORNISH: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focusing on agriculture and rural issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRUP SES' "GSBCB WITH COCO BRYCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.