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Farm Bill passes Senate

U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, announced that the Senate approved his bipartisan Rural Health Liaison Act, the first original legislation he introduced in the Senate, as a part of the Farm Bill package.

Jones’ office said that communities across Alabama stand to benefit from increased federal support as part of the Farm Bill that passed in the Senate this afternoon.

The Farm Bill is passed every five years and sets ag policy for half a decade (or more). The legislation is a comprehensive bill that encompasses a wide range of issues from commodity price supports and rural development to agricultural conservation and food assistance. The version that passed in the Senate today provides protections for Alabama’s farmers as well as critical support for key Alabama issues such as health care, sewage infrastructure, and broadband.

“Farming is a risky venture. Bad market conditions or natural disasters could devastate the livelihood of Alabama’s farmers in any moment,” Senator Jones said. “This Farm Bill offers important protections and safety nets to ensure our farmers are covered. Throughout this process, I have advocated to protect our cotton, peanut, and soybean producers among all the other important commodities our state produces. I will continue to do so as the bill moves to a conference report. I’m also proud to have worked with my colleagues to include my first original legislation in the Farm Bill text to improve rural health care delivery, in addition to addressing several critical needs for the state of Alabama like expanding access to high-speed internet and combatting our sewage system crisis.”

The Senate-approved Farm Bill also includes several specific provisions championed by Senator Jones for Alabama’s rural communities, including:

Health Care – The Rural Health Liaison Act (S. 2894): establishes a rural health liaison at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to better coordinate federal resources and expand health care access to Americans who have for too long struggled to receive quality, affordable care in their own communities. Senator Jones introduced this bipartisan legislation last month with Senator Mike Rounds, R-SD, and Tina Smith, D-Minnesota.

Sewage Infrastructure – The Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act (S.2772): expands the USDA’s Household Water Well System Grant Program to provide grants of up to $15,000 to low- and moderate-income households in rural areas for installing or maintaining individually-owned decentralized wastewater systems. Senator Jones was an original cosponsor of this bipartisan legislation introduced by Senator Cory Booker, D-NJ, to help address the rural sewage system crisis facing Alabama and other states. Senator Jones has visited impacted Alabama residents in Lowndes County and recently co-hosted a public health fair in Hayneville, Alabama with Congresswoman Terri Sewell (D-Selma) to provide information and other resources to the community.

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Broadband – The Broadband Connections for Rural Opportunities Program Act (S. 1676): increases the authorization from $25 million to $150 million annually for the USDA to provide loans and loan guarantees for broadband services in rural communities. Senator Jones cosponsored this legislation led by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, and Shelley Moore Capito, R-WV.

The Community Connect Grant Program Act (S. 2654): authorizes $50 million annually for the USDA Community Connect Program, which provides broadband grants targeted to the most rural, unserved, and high-poverty communities in the country. The program expands high-speed internet by providing new grants that will connect unserved households and businesses with modern internet access and streamlines broadband application process. Senator Jones cosponsored this legislation led by Senator Tina Smith, D-Minnesota.

Farmers and Ranchers – The Fair Access for Farmers and Ranchers Act (S. 3117): requires the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) to provide farm numbers to farmers with certain documentation, including in concert with Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Laws in some states. The bill also authorizes FSA to make loans to qualified intermediaries to re-lend to families seeking to resolve heirs’ property issues. Senator Jones introduced this legislation with Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to ensure that farmers of color don’t face unnecessary obstacles to use inherited land and to help them preserve this important source of wealth for future generations.

The Assist Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Act (S.2839) and the Next Generation in Agriculture Act (S. 2762): these two bills were combined to create permanent, mandatory baseline funding to educate the next generation of farmers and reach more minority farmers. Senator Jones was an original cosponsor of both bills.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement on the Senate passage of the 2018 Farm Bill:

“The bipartisan Farm Bill passed today by the Senate, with my support, gives American farmers a number of victories,” Sen. Grassley said. “It will help fund programs that promote American agricultural products abroad to increase exports, makes sensible reforms to the Conservation Reserve Program and preserves crop insurance, which farmers in Iowa and throughout the country depend on. It also includes an amendment I introduced that will set sound, enforceable limits to farm safety net payments, closing loopholes that exploit the intent of farm programs by allowing some non-farmers to game the system and take resources away from real, working farmers. I believe that farm programs should provide temporary, limited assistance to farmers when there’s a natural disaster or an unforeseeable, sudden change in market prices, not unlimited subsidies. I’ve advocated for payment limit reforms for more than a decade and I’m pleased with the amendment’s adoption.”

“Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow have worked hard on this bipartisan bill,” Grassley added. “I applaud their efforts and look forward to passing a final bill that will give farmers and American agriculture the safety net it needs to feed the people of this country and the world.”

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“Senators Shelby and Jones should be commended for their support of Alabama farmers. With the national farm economy struggling, getting a farm bill done on time is critical,” said Alabama Farmers Federation (ALFA) Director of National Legislative Programs Mitt Walker. “Today’s vote keeps the finish line in sight and provides an opportunity to conference the bill with the legislation approved by the House last week.”

An amendment was brought by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Cory Booker, D-NJ. Walker said it would have imposed overly restrictive changes to the oversight of producer-funded checkoff programs. The amendment was strongly opposed by the Alabama Farmers Federation. It failed by a vote of 38-57. Both Alabama senators voted against the measure.

The House had already passed its version of the Farm Bill. The two bills are very different. The House bill includes work requirements for SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and other conservative priorities. The Senate bill is bipartisan with support from both parties. Both Houses are expected to vote to send the farm bill to a conference committee. It is expected that there will be a vote on a final version of the farm bill before the end of the year.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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