U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a longtime member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, today outlined several of his proposals that are included in the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, more commonly referred to as the farm bill, and the effect that this important legislation would have on the lives of all South Dakotans.
Thune’s remarks (as prepared for delivery):
“Mr. President, agriculture is the lifeblood of my state of South Dakota.
“More than 43 million of our state’s roughly 50 million acres are given over to farming and ranching.
“In fact, cattle actually outnumber people in South Dakota.
“We have more than four times as many cattle as people in our state – which is a pretty good example of just how fundamental ranching is to South Dakota life.
“And we routinely place in the top 10 states for production of a number of crops, including soybeans, corn, and wheat.
“Agriculture isn’t just part of the South Dakota way of life – it is the South Dakota way of life.
“And while I’m one of those South Dakota residents who doesn’t farm or ranch, I’ve always considered it one of my great privileges to know South Dakota farmers and ranchers and get to represent them in the United States Congress.
“That’s why when I was in the House of Representatives, I chose to serve on the House Agriculture Committee.
“And it’s why I serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee today.
“Mr. President, our biggest job as members of the Senate Agriculture Committee is to work on producing the farm bills.
“These bills set the rules of the road for farmers and ranchers.
“They govern safety net programs like crop insurance and livestock disaster programs, which are so essential for individuals working in an industry where bad weather can wipe out a year’s work and place a family farm at risk.
“They set the rules for conservation programs.
“They cover farm loan programs.
“And much more.
“This year’s farm bill is particularly important, as farmers and ranchers are facing a tough agriculture economy.
“Commodity prices have plunged, and net farm income is half of what it was four or five years ago.
“Now more than ever, farmers and ranchers need to know with certainty what the rules of the road will be so they can plan well for the future.
“The farm bill we’re considering this week is the fourth farm bill I’ve had the chance to work on during my time in Congress.
“And while there are a handful of things I’d like to improve further, I’m pleased with the product we have on the floor today.
“Given the variety of programs and priorities they cover, farm bills are always a big production.
“That’s why I got a head start on this year’s bill last March, when I introduced legislation to create a new income protection program for farmers.
“That bill was the first of nearly a dozen pieces of farm bill legislation I’ve introduced over the past year.
“I figured that starting the process early on would allow us to not just reauthorize agriculture programs, but strengthen and improve them.
“And I’m pleased that the bill before us today does exactly that.
“I’m also pleased that several of my proposals are included in the bill – although the credit for that goes to the farmers and ranchers who helped inspire these much-needed policies and policy changes.
“The fact is, nobody knows more about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to agriculture policy than the people out there every day working to make a living at farming and ranching.
“That’s why I make it a point to meet regularly with South Dakota farmers and ranchers to hear how things are going directly from them.
“They let me know which agriculture programs are working, which aren’t, and which could be improved.
“And many of my proposals for this year’s bill are the direct result of conversations with farmers and ranchers back home.
“Perhaps the prime example of that is my proposal to help improve the accuracy of the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“In April of this year, I held an agriculture roundtable in Rapid City, South Dakota.
“During this event, several ranchers shared their concerns about accurate precipitation measurement.
“Accurate precipitation measurements matter to ranchers because this data is used to determine whether or not ranchers qualify for grazing loss assistance and livestock forage loss assistance when weather conditions threaten their feed supplies and the well-being of their herds.
“Ranchers have been frustrated by inconsistent rainfall and drought determinations at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“This spring after last summer’s drought, for example, the U.S. Forest Service determined that some federal grazing lands in western South Dakota were too dry, and consequently reduced the number of livestock ranchers can graze on U.S. Forest Service lands.
“That left ranchers struggling to find sufficient grazing lands for their cattle.
“However, last year the Drought Monitor classified that same area as not dry enough to trigger eligibility for the Livestock Forage Program, which provides assistance to ranchers whose pastures have suffered grazing losses due to drought.
“Obviously this kind of inconsistent monitoring and resulting inconsistent federal assistance is a problem, and the ranchers I met with in April let me know just how much of a problem it can be.
“And so I came back to D.C. and worked with my staff to develop legislation to improve the accuracy of the Drought Monitor and require the Department of Agriculture to use consistent precipitation monitoring data across its programs.
“And I’m happy to report that my Drought Monitor legislation was adopted as part of the farm bill before the Senate today.
“I’m also proud that the farm bill includes authorization for a program I proposed that would strengthen soil health while reducing farmers’ crop insurance costs.
“All farmers are familiar with the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, which provides incentives for farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production for 10 to 15 years.
“But a lot of farmers have told me that they don’t want to retire portions of their land for a decade or more, and they don’t want to place expensive seed, fertilizer, and other inputs on their poorest land, especially now when prices are at such low levels.
“To address this, in March of last year I offered a bill to create a new program, the Soil Health and Income Protection Program.
“This program would provide a new, short-term option for farmers that would allow them to take their worst-performing cropland out of production for three to five years, instead of the 10 to 15 required by CRP rules.
“In return for taking this land out of production, farmers would receive a modest rental payment and increased crop insurance premium discounts.
“This program would accomplish the dual goals of protecting our environment while improving the bottom line for farmers.
“I’m very pleased that the authorization for the Soil Health and Income Protection Program was included in the farm bill we’re considering today.
“A number of other proposals I introduced also made it into the bill, including proposals to improve the Agriculture Risk Coverage program; proposals to provide pasture, rangeland, and forage insurance premium assistance for Native American ranchers; and proposals to increase the approval rate of Livestock Indemnity Program applications.
“One proposal I’m still working to get included in the bill is a proposal to allow more flexibility in Conservation Reserve Program haying and grazing policies.
“The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, plays a very significant role in South Dakota’s economy.
“It provides a major portion of the habitat for pheasants, which bring in more than $200 million each year to the South Dakota economy.
“But farmers have spent years frustrated with the Department of Agriculture’s management of the CRP program, particularly the program’s sometimes excessive restrictions on land use and requirements to destroy vegetative cover under mid-contract management, even in drought years when feed supplies are short.
“The proposal I’m working to get included in the final bill would allow haying on a third of all CRP acres and limited grazing on most CRP land.
“This common-sense reform, along with other CRP reforms I proposed that are included in the bill in front of us today, would address some of farmers’ major concerns with current land-use rules for acres enrolled in CRP.
“Mr. President, as I mentioned, there are a few areas where I think we could have done more or gone further to make improvements.
“I have proposals to further increase CRP acres and proposals to make additional improvements to the Agriculture Risk Coverage program.
“But, Mr. President, I think we have a very strong bill before us today, and I’m grateful for the leadership of our Agriculture Committee Chairman, Senator Roberts, and the ranking member, Senator Stabenow.
“All too often these days, measures that should be collaborative fall victim to partisanship, but the debate over the farm bill was collegial and cooperative, and we produced a strong, bipartisan bill as a result.
“Mr. President, it takes a special kind of person to be a farmer or rancher.
“There are no set hours or paid vacation.
“Bad weather isn’t just an inconvenience – it jeopardizes your entire livelihood.
“Your job is filled with late nights and early mornings.
“You can sit up all night with a sick calf, and then have to get out there sleepless the next morning to work a full day in the fields.
“The work is physically demanding.
“And it’s performed no matter what the weather – blazing sun, freezing cold, or blowing snow or rain.
“We don’t see the backbreaking work, the sweat and tears that have gone into the production of that gallon of milk we pick up on our way home.
“But every time we go to the grocery store, we are the beneficiaries of the courage, dedication, and hard work of our nation’s farmers and ranchers.
“They feed our country, and they feed the world.
“Mr. President, I’m grateful that so many farmers and ranchers call South Dakota home.
“And I hope the bill before us today will help make their jobs just a little bit easier in the future.”