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SD’s Rep. Johnson defends criticized provisions in farm bill draft

South Dakota’s lone U.S. representative, Republican Dusty Johnson, is defending changes to anti-hunger and “climate-smart” programs in a new draft of the farm bill.

Johnson, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, called criticisms of the Republican-controlled committee’s draft “overblown.” Johnson and the rest of the committee will debate and consider amendments to the $1.5 trillion, 942-page draft today. A new version of the bill — typically adopted every five years — is already overdue, and its current extension expires Sept. 30.

Among the many programs affected by the bill is the federal anti-hunger program formerly known as food stamps — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which benefits about 41 million Americans.

“Let’s be clear, there is nothing in this bill that would cut benefits for anybody on SNAP,” Johnson said. “That’s clear in black and white. Nobody on SNAP will have their benefits cut, even a single dollar.”

But critics say the draft would affect future funding levels.

According to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the draft would limit future updates to benefits, resulting in a roughly $30 billion cut over the next decade. First Focus on Children, a child welfare advocacy organization, says the draft would cut SNAP benefits by $36 billion over the next decade, an estimated $17 billion of which would serve children.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday on a call with reporters that the Republican position on SNAP could doom the bill.

“It’s been clear that there has been a coalition historically that is central to the passage of the farm bill, which understands the importance of addressing the nutrition programs and the farm programs,” Vilsack said. “It is essentially a crack in the coalition that is absolutely necessary to the passage of the farm bill … The fact that we’re crossing that red line raises the real possibility of being unable to get a farm bill through the process.”

Another area of disagreement is the removal of some climate change-focused requirements for about $13 billion in conservation projects funded by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

Johnson said conservation should focus on more than climate change.

“We do take some really restrictive IRA funding, which invested only in conservation projects that were defined as ‘climate-smart,’ and instead we provide more flexibility so those dollars can be spent, not just on ‘climate-smart’ conservation, but on conservation that is also helpful to habitat, water quality and soil health,” he said.

Meanwhile, Food & Water Watch, a watchdog group, said the draft provision would divert money to programs that would open up more funding for “dirty factory farm biogas,” such as natural gas captured from manure.

The farm bill also sets policy in areas including financial support for crop farmers, conservation, trade programs, loans for farmers, rural development, agricultural research, forest management and support for local food systems.

Stronger price supports for farmers
Johnson said he’s particularly proud of several farm bill changes his office helped write and put in the draft. They include faster internet speed requirements for new rural broadband infrastructure, more funding to help farmers and ranchers implement conservation practices, and greater payments to farmers when the sale price for their crop falls below the price set by the Price Loss Coverage program.

“This might be the biggest change in the farm bill,” Johnson said of the Price Loss Coverage change.

Johnson said costs including land taxes, seed, fertilizer and equipment have gone up, but the coverage has not been adjusted since the last farm bill passed. To help, the draft bill increases the base price set by the program – by 10% for corn, 18% for soybeans and 15.5% for wheat.

“This is going to mean that when prices fall, it will be more likely for these programs to trigger and benefit producers,” Johnson said.

He thinks federal farm policy does a decent job of ensuring crop subsidies do not over-incentive the conversion of grassland to cropland.

“We’ve got 91 million acres of corn and 90 million acres of soybeans in this county,” he said. “I don’t have any doubt people would be able to find hundreds of acres that should be utilized a little differently than it is, but you’re looking at 180 million acres; we get a lot more right than we get wrong.”

Another change that has Johnson excited is doubling the funding for two programs that create market access and promote trade for U.S. agricultural products. The Market Access Program helps fund trade organizations and state agencies to help them create, expand and maintain foreign markets. And the Foreign Market Development Program focuses on creating demand through technical assistance, capacity building and market research.

“They’re fantastically successful,” he said. “A number of studies have shown that both of these programs have a return on investment in excess of 20 to 1. Once we can get these markets open, American farmers and ranchers do very, very well.”

Johnson provisions in the draft
Several bills Johnson has introduced or co-sponsored are incorporated in the draft. They include authorizing over $100 million annually for loans and grants to new and expanding small or medium-sized meat processors, and ensuring common names for U.S. agricultural products can be used freely in foreign markets.

“We understand when these practices have been in place for a long time, like with ‘champagne,’ if it’s not from that region of France then it has to be called sparkling wine,” Johnson said. “But we’ve seen Europe really step up their frequency of using this trick, and it’s just anti-competitive behavior. And this just makes it clear we’re not going to play ball with that nonsense.”

According to a prior statement from Johnson’s office, parmesan, chateau and bologna are among the food-related words that could run into problems.

Another of Johnson’s proposals in the draft farm bill ensures dogs imported into the U.S. are healthy and have received proper vaccines and medical treatment, which is a problem he learned about while serving on a different committee.

Another provision seeks to create uniform pesticide labeling standards nationwide, preventing states from imposing different requirements than the federal government’s. The provision is a response to some states, like California, labeling certain pesticides unsafe, despite the federal government claiming otherwise.

Johnson said the change ensures “any state that is going to impose their own labeling requirements has to follow the same evidenced-based system for labeling that the EPA does.”

Another Johnson-backed provision would allow livestock auction owners to invest in small meat packers. He said it’s prohibited now because of conflict of interest concerns. But he said those concerns are outweighed by consolidation among “the big four” meatpackers.

Other Johnson provisions include allowing the USDA to enter into contracts with tribes to allow them to administer SNAP benefits, and $150 million for states to pay private landowners lease payments to allow public access to their land.

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