Farm interests list priorities for 2012 bill

Great Falls Tribune

by Peter Johnson

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester got a smorgasbord of ideas Friday when he asked a panel of 10 folks from different aspects of farming for ideas about what’s right with the current Farm Bill and what could be cut back when it’s rewritten in 2012.

“There will be some cost-cutting efforts to reduce federal spending in D.C., and rightly so,” Tester said.

He predicted some ag programs will be trimmed and a few will be eliminated, but there will be no across-the-board 10-15 percent cuts. “And it will be difficult to get much expansion,” he said.

Several farm groups and a Hutterite colony farm boss strongly supported steady, direct farm payments to producers and crop insurance that fills in the income gap during years of bad production or prices.

Loma farmer Dan Works said direct payments and crop insurance were the two top priorities of Montana Grain Growers.

David Hofer, a farm manager at Eagle Creek Hutterite Colony near Galata, agreed, saying: “It’s important to get the word out to Congress that without these safety net tools in the Farm Bill that help us manage risk, we couldn’t survive.”

Hofer and others supported broadening crop insurance to cover alternative crops that can improve the soil and cut costs, such as oil seed and pulse crops, i.e. peas and lentils.

Smaller, organic or sustainable farmers suggested programs that promote farmers markets, give a break to farmers who use certified seeds and broaden programs that encourage young farmers and ranchers.

“It’s very important that the new Farm Bill do more to encourage small-scale, local and regional food production and organic farming,” said Dave Oien of Conrad, founder of a certified organic seed company.

He praised Tester for sponsoring an amendment to the Food Safety Bill that exempted producers from new regulations if they sell most of their food within the state and have less than $500,000 in annual sales.

Kim Falcon, executive vice president of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, urged better financial support of three intertwined issues: crop research, food security donations to needy nations and market development in foreign nations.

Private and public research has given Montana crops an edge in foreign markets, she said, with 80 percent of Montana grain exported. Research must be kept up to keep crops resistant to pests and diseases, she said.

Collapsed grain crops in Russia, Ukraine, Australia and Canada have benefited U.S. and Montana producers with higher grain prices, but they also have left parts of the world hungry, Falcon said, urging continued U.S. food and monetary donations.

And the U.S., which spends one-fifth the amount that Canada and Australia does in marketing its grain in other countries, needs to keep funding market development programs that, for example, train Japanese millers and bakers in the advantages of U.S. grains.

Jane Holzer, director of Montana Salinity Control, urged protection of conservation programs that help production, or traditional, agriculture by protecting soil and water quality.

Montana Farmers Union lobbyist Chris Christiaens advocated tax credits for farmers producing crops for bio fuels that might power military aircraft.

Great Falls Development Authority President Brett Doney urged continuing financial support for rural water projects.

After the meeting Tester said he was encouraged by the comments, though most discussed keeping or improving programs and none directly suggested programs to cut or eliminate.

He said he came away with a few overriding suggestions:

  • Expanding crop insurance to include pulse and oil seed crops could benefit Montana farmers financially.
  • The young farmer and rancher programs aren’t working well despite their potential, because they’re hard to qualify for.
  • Conservation programs that improve soil health are most useful and allow better crops.
  • It might be useful to allow producers with land getting ready to come out of the Conservation Reserve Program to make a transition that continues to pay them if they do limited haying and grazing on highly erodible lands.