Government

New farm law brings 'peace of mind' to ag interests

White House orders stricter work rules for food stamp benefits

Romaine lettuce grows with theSanta Lucia Mountains in the background in Salinas Valley, Calif., in 2014. (Ed Young/DPA/Zuma Press/TNS)
Romaine lettuce grows with theSanta Lucia Mountains in the background in Salinas Valley, Calif., in 2014. (Ed Young/DPA/Zuma Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed into law Thursday an $867 billion farm bill that provides billions in aid to farmers while rejecting deep cuts to the federal food stamp programs sought by some.

“We have to take care of our farmers and ranchers, and we will take care of them,” Trump said at the signing ceremony.

Earlier in the day, the Trump administration also announced it unilaterally would seek stricter work requirement rules for food stamp beneficiaries — changes that some House Republicans wanted that were rejected by other lawmakers.

The farm bill was approved earlier this month by large majorities of Congress, clearing the Senate 87-to-13 and the House 369-to-47.

The White House joined House conservatives in calling for reductions in food stamp benefits, but never threatened to derail the package over it. The administration saw a renewed farm bill as a necessity since farmers already have suffered financial consequences from its trade war as China slapped retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agricultural exports.

“This gives a peace of mind to our producers here who have to make plans for 2019,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told Fox Business Network.

The five-year farm bill sets policies and reauthorize farm, conservation, nutrition, rural development, agricultural trade and other programs.

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The law also calls for improving mental health services for rural residents — establishing helplines, providing suicide prevention training, creating support groups and extending a network providing free mental health screenings.

The compromise legislation generally has gotten high marks from industry and advocacy groups for its handling of land conservation, organic agriculture research and education, trade promotion and other programs.

“The 2018 farm bill was a must-do and a big-win for Iowa. The 2018 farm bill will strengthen conservation programs, provide critical mental health support to the agriculture community, support our nation’s dairy farmers and maintain a robust crop insurance program,” said a statement from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who served on a conference committee that reached a compromise between the different House and Senate versions.

But the compromise bill also faced criticism for enlarging federal farm subsidies.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, one of two farmers in the Senate and a member of the Agriculture Committee, voted against the package over its expansion of subsidies to more-distant relatives of farmers, such as cousins, nephews and nieces.

“I’m very disappointed the conferees decided to expand the loopholes on farm subsidies,” Grassley said. “I’ve been trying to make sure the people who get the subsidies are real farmers. ... I’ve been trying for three years, and it gets worse and worse and worse.”

The country’s food assistance program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the bill, already requires most adults without dependents to work if they collect food stamps for more than three months in a three-year period.

But USDA regulations allow states to waive the requirement in areas with unemployment rates at least 20 percent greater than the national rate. The USDA now is proposing that states could waive the requirement only in areas where unemployment is above 7 percent. The current national unemployment rate stands at 3.7 percent.

Approximately 2.8 million able-bodied recipients without children or an ailing person in their care were not working in 2016, the USDA said.

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Roughly 755,000 of them live in areas that stand to lose the waivers, according to USDA officials, who projected the change would save $15 billion over 10 years.

The number of Americans receiving food stamp benefits already has declined, falling from about 48 million in 2013 to about 40 million now as the economy rebounded and unemployment fell, according to federal statistics.

The Washington Post and Roll Call contributed to this report.

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