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Comer Gains Seat On Farm Bill Conference Committee

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A Kentucky congressman with deep roots in agriculture will serve on the conference committee assigned to negotiate a final version of the next federal farm bill.

After his selection to the committee, U.S. Rep. James Comer said Wednesday the final product will be the "most impactful legislation" signed into law this year. He'll also advocate for including language that legalizes hemp, a proposal championed by a fellow Kentucky Republican — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The conference committee role is a plum assignment for Comer, still in his first full House term. He represents a rural district that relies heavily on agriculture.

The congressional conferees will meet to work out differences between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill. The legislation would renew farm programs such as crop insurance and land conservation.

The negotiations come as farmers are struggling from low prices for their products and increasingly worried that trade disputes could depress commodity prices further.

Comer said he's looking forward to working out a final farm bill that will "give our farmers confidence the federal government has their back."

Comer is a farmer and served as Kentucky's agriculture commissioner. He emerged as one of the state's biggest proponents for bringing back hemp as an agricultural commodity.

To legalize hemp, it has to be removed from the controlled substances list that currently associates the crop with its cousin — marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp has a negligible amount of the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.

McConnell's proposal to legalize the crop was included in the Senate-passed version of the farm bill. Hemp language wasn't included in the House measure.

Comer said he'll push hard to put the hemp provisions in the final version. He said there's still resistance to the crop among some conferees.

"The economic viability of industrial hemp in Kentucky grows every day," he said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Kentucky has been at the forefront of hemp's comeback. The crop has been grown on an experimental basis in a number of states after a provision in the 2014 farm bill allowed state agriculture departments to designate hemp projects for research and development.

The versatile crop was historically used for rope but has many other uses, including clothing and mulch from the fiber; hemp milk and cooking oil from the seeds; and soap and lotions. Other uses include building materials, animal bedding and biofuels.

Meanwhile, proposed changes to food stamps loom as the biggest sticking point in the farm bill negotiations. The House bill would tighten work requirements for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The Senate version largely avoided changes to food stamps.

Comer said Wednesday he'd like to see the tighter work requirements in the final bill.

"We have the strongest economy we've had in a generation, and there's never been a better time to get people off welfare and into the work force that are able bodied," he said. "And this ... is the last potential piece of legislation this year that could have any type of welfare reform component to it."

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