Havre Daily News: Tester talks ag, trucker vaccinations, electric cars

by Tim Leeds

In a press conference last week, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., talked on a variety of subjects including how the agricultural season turned out and on legislation he is sponsoring to increase competition in that industry.

Tester, the only active farmer in the U.S. Senate, and who farms west of Big Sandy, said the harvest this year wasn’t the best, for him and for many other Montana ag producers, but it could have been worse.

“Prices are decent,” Tester said, adding, “Production, at least in my neck of the woods and I think it’s pretty fair to say, especially along the northern tier of Montana, production wasn’t where it needed to be. I personally cut about a third of a crop this year. That’s the bad news. The good news is the quality was good.”

He did say it could have been worse. “I was in a bad situation last year, because we had the drought last year then we had a devastating hailstorm, so, for me, it wasn’t as bad as last year, but its still not even close to average.”

“I’m not going to have as many dollars to spend on stuff that we would normally have because production was down. It’s easily solved by a good old-fashioned rain,” he added.

He said he continues to work on legislation that could help Montana producers, including trying to reduce perceived monopolistic policies by the main players in the ag industry.

Four meat-packing companies control almost all meat packing in the country, with similar situations in other areas of the ag markets.

JBS in February agreed to a $52 million out-of-court settlement in a lawsuit alleging price fixing in the beef market. The lawsuit also targets Tyson Foods, Cargill and National Beef, which, along with JBS, control more than 80 percent of the U.S. beef market.

JBS admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.

Several other lawsuits against the packers are working through the courts. JBS agreed this month to settle out of court, with no admission of wrongdoing, and pay $20 million in a lawsuit alleging price fixing in the pork market.

Tester said the settlement in the beef lawsuit is just a start.

It is a step in the right direction,” he said, adding, “It is pocket change for JBS.”

He said he is working on legislation to put more accountability in the system and add more competition.

“I think it’s time for additional oversight,” Tester said.

He said someone recently asked him why the legislation is needed when the Packers and Stockyards Act was passed in 1921 specifically to prevent domination in the markets.

“The Packers and Stockayrds Act has been around a hundred years and it’s never been enforced,” he said, adding that he thinks the enforcement is better placed in the Department of Agriculture instead of the Department of Justice.

“If the Department of Justice thinks we’re walking on their turf and they want to get into it, the more the merrier,” Tester said,

When asked in Thursday’s press conference about the U.S. requirements that truckers must show proof of COVID vaccination to bring freight into the U.S. from Canada, Tester said he was glad the question was asked.

“Just today, we sent off a letter to (The Department of) Homeland Security saying we need to do away with the vaccination requirement,” Tester said. “We still have supply chain issues – they’ve gotten better but they’re certainly not in the rearview mirror – and Canada’s our number one trading partner, and I think to do away with these vaccination requirements would be a smart idea and were encouraging the administration to do that.”

When asked about the shortage of electric cars on the market, Tester said the Senate has taken steps and will do more to help with that.

He said a major part of car shortages right now is due to shortages of computer chips. Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act to try to get U.S. manufacturing of those chips increased, he said.

“We depend upon Taiwan and Korea for chips. That is not stable for us long-term, and its important we get them back into this country, being manufactured here,” he said.

He also said the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act passed last year also will help, providing funding for increased electrical transmission that will help with charging stations.

But, he said, another issue is permitting.

“It goes right straight to permitting reform, which is what we are dealing with in the next week or so,” Tester said.

He said the rare earth elements that are required for many of the components of electric cars are available in the U.S.

“If we’re going to create electric cars we have to make the ability to get that stuff out of the ground, quite frankly, easier, while we protect our environment,” Tester said.

He also talked about Native American issues, saying Native Americans are a very proud people who have contributed greatly to the country and to what the United States is today, saying he always is impressed with their traditions.

He said one issue is the lack of housing in Indian Country, which leads to difficulties including recruiting teachers and law enforcement, which Congress needs to help address.

Another is law enforcement itself, Tester said, adding that tribal representatives tell him they have difficulty getting support and assistance from Bureau of Indian Affairs. He said he sent a letter to BIA asking it to step up and help out.

“Which is what they are set up to do,” Tester said.

He also was asked about a judge earlier this month reinstating the last remaining petroleum drilling lease on the Badger-Two Medicine region near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

“I don’t know what the heck they are thinking about, truthfully,” Tester said. “It’s deja vu all over again.”

He said the region is important spiritually to the Blackfeet and also some of the best hunting grounds and most incredibly diverse habitat in the nation. If it takes an act of Congress or a court appeal to protect the region from mining, that’s what they will do, Tester said.

“I just don’t get it,” he said. “… There’s right places to drill and mine and wrong places to drill and mine, and Badger-Two Medicine is the wrong place.”