November 13, 2018 / 12:05 PM / a month ago

Stung by trade wars, U.S. farmers hope for quick progress on Farm Bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. soybean farmer Mike Schlosser does not expect President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, the single biggest headwind to his business, to end any time soon. But he is among many in farm country who expect at least some good news this year - in the form of a new Farm Bill.

FILE PHOTO: Soybean plants around 45-days before harvest are seen on a farm near Norborne, Missouri, U.S., August 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dave Kaup/File Photo

Congress comes back on Tuesday for the lame-duck session after Democrats in last week’s mid-term elections gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Lawmakers have said passing the critical piece of agricultural legislation is their highest priority.

That would provide some comfort to farmers who for the past several months have been crushed by the loss of export markets due to the trade wars and are keen for a legislative backstop if the trade disputes linger.

“It’s our safety net,” Schlosser, of North Dakota, said. “We could use all the help we can to eliminate any uncertainty in times like this,” he said.

The Farm Bill provides funding for an array of programs important to farmers, including crop subsidies, rural development programs and support accessing export markets. The latest bill, passed in 2014, expired on Sept. 30 after talks over its replacement broke down.

At issue was a bitter partisan debate over a provision in the draft of the new bill that would have imposed stricter work requirements for recipients of food stamps. The Republican-led House of Representatives passed an $867 billion bill in June with the tougher requirements, over the objections of Democrats. The Senate, meanwhile, passed its own bipartisan version that excluded them.

With Democrats in control of the House, the deadlock could be resolved, several senior lawmakers said last week, even as Trump reiterated his desire for stricter work requirements in the bill.

Agricultural committee staffers had continued negotiating throughout the Congressional recess to iron out differences on the bill, though a final agreement was unlikely to be produced before Thanksgiving, one staffer said.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley said on Tuesday he was not holding his breath for a breakthrough. “I have not heard anything positive coming out of the talks between the House and Senate,” he said in a conference call.

Curt Mether, a corn and soybean farmer from Iowa, said he hoped Trump would back down.

“I think President Trump will be willing to step down on the work requirements issue in the end as he understands the House will be Democrat-controlled,” he said.

He noted a new Farm Bill could help farmers survive the ongoing trade dispute, which has driven China, traditionally the biggest buyer of U.S. agriculture exports, out of the market.

“Some of our export programs are funded through the Farm Bill. While we are negotiating with China, it is really important that we get all the trade we can with other countries,” he said.

Bob Hemesath, an Iowa corn and hog farmer, agreed. “I’m hopeful... Amid the trade tariffs, without a Farm Bill, we would not have access to market development programs, and these are crucial,” he said.

Dairy farmers, whose trade with Mexico and Canada was hit by tariffs over the summer and have yet to recover despite a new North American trade deal, have also called on lawmakers to settle the deal on the Farm Bill.

“Given the sustained low prices dairy farmers have faced, coupled with uncertainty in agricultural trade policy, it is more important than ever that Congress quickly enact the 2018 Farm Bill before adjourning for the year,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation.

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Dan Grebler and Susan Thomas

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