The Senate Agriculture Committee approved its farm bill on a near-unanimous vote, 20-1, sending the bill to the Senate floor for a debate by the end of the month.

The lone vote against the bill was cast by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Because of a drafting snafu, he was unable to offer an amendment to tighten commodity program payment limits. 

The farm bill is a top priority for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who attended the committee debate to promote provisions that would legalize the production of industrial hemp and make it eligible for crop insurance.

McConnell, who is a member of the committee but rarely attends sessions, reiterated his pledge to bring the bill to the floor sometime in the next two weeks. 

"We have the support of both leaders to bring the bill to the floor before the 4th of July break, and if we do that we will then provide our farmers, our ranchers, our growers, and everybody connected to the great food chain we have in America certainty and predictability," committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said after the committee vote. 

The committee's ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said, "It's significant that while we haven't changed or increased overall dollars we've been able to set some priorities and strengthened some areas" of the expiring 2014 farm bill. 

The bill would largely preserve the structure of the 2014 farm bill, without increasing or cutting its overall cost, while avoiding the partisan impasse that has dogged the House farm bill. That legislation would expand work requirements for adults who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The House voted down its version of the bill May 18 after some conservatives insisted that the chamber act first on immigration policy. Votes on that issue are planned for next week. 

Before approving its bill Wednesday in a relatively short session that lasted less than three hours, the Senate committee adopted several amendments, including one to mandate funding for energy programs, and a manager’s package of 66 more changes. 

The energy funding, proposed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., sparked one of the only regional fights over the bill. Her amendment would provide $464 million over 10 years to maintain funding for USDA energy programs at the levels mandated by the 2014 farm bill and to reimburse  dairy farms for premiums they paid into the Margin Protection Program from 2015 through 2017.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., unsuccessfully objected to taking the money out of a subsidy program for domestic cotton textile mills. The draft bill provided mandatory funding for only one energy program, the Rural Energy for America Program. 

Grassley had been pledging for days to force a committee vote on his proposal to tighten the definition of what it means to be “actively engaged” in farming to be eligible for commodity programs. However, sources said he didn’t have the final version of the amendment ready in time because it had to be changed at the last minute to conform to changes made in the manager’s package of amendments. 

Grassley may get to offer the amendment on the Senate floor, but it’s possible he may require 60 votes to get it adopted. 

Among the amendments that were adopted: 

  • Additional states could fall under the Sodsaver restrictions for crop insurance should their governors decide to do so, under an amendment sponsored by Klobuchar. The Sodsaver rules, which apply to only to the six Prairie Pothole states of Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota, would reduce premium subsidies for farmers who break up native sod. 
  • An amendment aimed at building an export market in Cuba would authorize funding from the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Program to be used for trade servicing, technical assistance, and trade promotion work in the island nation. “It is high time we explore that market,” said Heitkamp, who co-sponsored the amendment. “This is a critical component of building those relationships that will help us establish a trading relationship with a country that is only 90 miles off our shore.” 
  • An amendment proposed by John Hoeven, R-N.D., and modified by Klobuchar would raise the limits on USDA guaranteed and direct operating and ownership loans. The limit on guaranteed loans would be raised from $1.39 million to $1.75 million. The limits on direct ownership loans would be raised from $300,000 to $600,000 and the direct operating loan would be raised from $300,000 to $400,000.
  • An amendment by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., would allow USDA to increase the number of precipitation monitoring stations to improve soil moisture monitoring in sparsely populated areas.

Roberts and Stabenow talked Thune out of introducing an amendment to increase the acreage cap on the Conservation Reserve Program to 26.25 million acres, up from the current limit of 24 million acres and the 25-million cap in the bill. The amendment also would have given CRP contract holders more flexibility to cut hay and graze the land. But Stabenow opposed the measure, citing opposition from the National Wildlife Federation. 

Thune may offer another version of the amendment on the Senate floor. NWF's Aviva Glaser said her group's concerns dealt with reducing payment rates for CRP re-enrollments. She said the group would work with Thune, Roberts and Stabenow on a revised amendment. 

Thune decided against proposing an amendment to improve the Agriculture Risk Coverage by changing the way that crop yields are used to calculate the revenue guarantee, but a cost estimate developed Tuesday night by the Congressional Budget Office indicated it could have reduced, not increased, payments to the growers he was trying to help. 

McConnell and Grassley briefly tangled over the hemp provisions. Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his panel should have been allowed to consider the legislation. He said he had concerns that a hemp product, CBD, would be improperly sold as a treatment for epilepsy and other conditions. The bill "would allow any snake oil salesman to sell (CBD) ... without any regulatory controls whatsoever," Grassley said.

McConnell said he had already considered Grassley’s objections and had developed the bill with input from the Food and Drug Administration.

McConnell said hemp could fill the market niche left when farmers in his state stopped growing tobacco. “Younger farmers in my state are particularly interested in going in this direction, so I think it’s time for America,” McConnell said. 

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