Last week, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee introduced the initial draft of the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, referred to as the Farm Bill, and local dairy farmers are cautiously optimistic about the changes.

“I think they listened to what farmers and constituents have had to say as there are a lot of changes that reflect the feedback people had given to them,” Barb Hanselman, a dairy farmer in Bloomville, told The Daily Star in an email. "The real question is always: will those changes work?"

The bill will cost a projected $864 billion over 10 years, trimming $90 billion from the outlays of its 2014 predecessor because of a cut in SNAP benefits, and with a slightly larger margin given to titles including crop insurance, commodity programs and conservation programs, indicative of the economic downturn in agriculture.

According to the House Agriculture Committee, the United States has been facing a five-year, 52 percent decline in the farm economy.

The bill reauthorizes the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) options through 2023 and enhances dairy policy, reforming the unpopular Dairy Margin Protection Program (MPP).

Dairy farmers who talked to The Daily Star said they were happy to see alterations to the MPP, which has been criticized for its inability to reimburse farmers during the prolonged dip of milk prices.

“Everyone's in the same boat, operating on debt,” Matt Jahnke, a herd manager at his family's dairy farm in Milford. "A lot of farmers paid insurance into it, and nothing came of it when they needed it. It hurt."

Legislatures worked ahead of the farm bill to change pieces of the MPP in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which lifted the amount of milk that can qualify for coverage from four to six million pounds and made the payout monthly.

The Farm Bill will amend the 2014 version to add these changes and will strike “margin protection” to replace it with “dairy risk management.” The Dairy Margin Protection Program will be renamed Dairy Risk Management. Additionally, dairy producers will now be eligible to participate in the Livestock Gross Margin Insurance Plan for Dairy Cattle, which legislators said can provide flexibility for farmers.

Part of the bill will require the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to study feed costs to ensure accuracy in relation to risk management. One of the larger complaints regarding the MPP was its one-size-fits-all approach to setting prices, which did not reflect regional inconsistencies in feed costs, resulting in a failure to pay out in times of need.

Since 2015, dairy farmers have endured below-average returns for their product, but the MPP paid out only $12 million in indemnities out of the $96 million in premiums and fees farmers paid into the program in 2015 and 2016, according to the USDA.

Eyes will turn toward the House Agriculture Committee, which is scheduled to mark up the bill Wednesday. It is expected to be stalled by partisan divides, particularly over the changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Nutrition programs account for nearly 80 percent of the bill.

This is the first round of markups in a long haul as it moves through Congress, and it is likely to face many changes on its way.

Duane Martin, president of the Delaware County Farm Bureau, said that in the 25 years he's been involved and the five Farm Bills he has seen, the bill typically does not resemble the original draft by the time it reaches the president's desk.

Whitney Bashaw, staff writer, can be reached at (607) 441-7218 or . Follow her on Twitter @DS_WhitneyB

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