Heidi Heitkamp farm bill

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, right, answers a question on the status of farm bill legislation now working its way through congress. At left is state agriculture commissioner Doug Goehring.

With markup on a new five-year farm bill set to begin this week representatives from nearly two dozen agriculture groups met with North Dakota's senators in Bismarck for an update on the legislation.

The Monday roundtable discussion at Bismarck State College was organized by Democrat Heidi Heitkamp. Republican John Hoeven was in attendance for part of the event.

"I don't know what's going to change in this year's bill," Heitkamp said. "(But) we've got a window of opportunity to move the farm bill forward."

Markup of the Senate's version of the farm bill is expected to begin Tuesday in the Senate Agriculture Committee. Heitkamp and Hoeven are both members of the committee.

Currently an extension of the 2008 bill is in place until Sept. 30. It was part of a fiscal-cliff deal passed in Congress in early January.

The Senate bill is largely unchanged from what was passed out of the Senate in June 2012. It contains $23 billion in deficit reduction, including $4 billion to food stamps. The Senate bill also includes a supplemental coverage option that adds to crop insurance. Farmers would be able to utilize the new Agricultural Risk Coverage program, called ARC, to cover losses from yield or price collapses.

The House Agriculture Committee is expected to begin markup on its version of the farm bill as early as Wednesday. The House passed its own version of the bill out of committee in July 2012. However, Republican House leadership then refused to bring it to the floor.

The House also is similar to what had been in committee in 2012. It contains deeper cuts than the Senate bill. It has nearly $40 billion in savings, roughly half of which is in food stamp cuts.

"The reason that the bill didn't make it to the floor in 2012 is because it wouldn't have passed in 2012," Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp said the wrangling over food stamp cuts as well as provisions to protect southern growers' interests, particularly those growing peanuts and rice, loomed large in the lack of a farm bill in 2012.

Another area of concern for the senators is the provision tying conservation compliance to the federal crop insurance program. Both said it would negatively impact North Dakota and they'll be pushing to have it changed.

Hoeven said approximately 80 percent of the farm bill is related to food programs such as food stamps. He added that there's a disconnect in urban districts and more urban states that don't have as much of a farm economy.

"They have a tremendous opportunity to work with us," Hoeven said. "Ag has a wonderful story. We have to tell it."

Hoeven said it remains to be seen what happens as markup begins in the House and Senate.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he's had assurances from House leadership their chamber's version of the bill is expected to come to the floor by mid-June.

"I'm quite encouraged. I don't think there's any question the cost of the bills will be a major part of the negotiation," Cramer said.

He also spoke favorably of the roughly $20 billion in food stamp program cuts in the House bill. He said simply having more stringent requirements in place to qualify will reduce spending and the potential for waste.

"We're going to be pushing pretty firm on that. I don't see there being a lot of room to move on that," Cramer said.

Cramer was in agreement with Heitkamp and Hoeven on uncoupling the conservation compliance requirement from the federal crop insurance program. He's in favor of the House version which keeps the two separate.

"That is a very troubling prospect for North Dakota farmers I've spoken to," Cramer said. "I could see that being a pretty strong sticking point."

Reach Nick Smith at 250-8255 or 223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.