Montana farm groups gain significant takeaways from Senate ag bill

Tom Lutey

by Billings Gazette

A major, $20.5 billion agriculture funding bill with significant takeaways for Montana farmers edged closer Thursday to passing.

Grain farmers gained assurance that future strikes at Pacific ports wouldn’t shut down the grain trade. Woolgrowers prevailed in keeping the nation’s only federal sheep research lab open. And cattle ranchers were able to block beef imports from Argentina. All three measures were promoted either by Republican Sen. Steven Daines or Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and sought by Montana farmers and ranchers. The also two collaborated on securing rural broadband assistance. The bill pased through Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

“Montana’s hardworking farmers deserve certainty that their grain can get to market in a timely and efficient way,” Daines said. “It was encouraging to see bipartisan support for ensuring on-time grain inspections to protect against future disruptions and ensure normal shipments are maintained.”

Daines took on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grain inspection program after inspections stopped at a Pacific Northwest port for nearly a month in 2014. State inspectors subcontracted to do federal work refused to cross union picket lines citing safety concerns. Grain bound for the Asian Pacific piled up for weeks for lack of required inspection. Federal regulators never stepped after their state surrogates stepped out, presenting a multi-million dollar problem for Pacific Northwest farm exports.

Daines’ proposal requires the USDA to develop a backup plan for inspections. Montana exports 150 million bushels of grain annually.

Daines also successfully pushed for renewed funding for the nation’s only federal sheep research lab, which is located in Idaho, but is essential to Montana research and wool growers.

Tester managed to block beef imports from the regions of Brazil and Argentina, where foot-and-mouth disease has been a problem in the recent past. USDA announced July 2 that it planned to allow imports of Brazilian and Argentinean beef to the United States. Foot-and-mouth disease poses devastating losses to livestock businesses. The United States eradicated foot and mouth disease by destroying animal herds suspected of infection. A single case can wipe out a ranch or region and stifle U.S. animal exports.

“Montana cattle producers have the best beef around, and they’re held to the highest food safety standards,” Tester said. “Consumers and ranchers are best served by ensuring we can prevent and address any potential introduction of foot-and-mouth disease before we allow beef imports from Brazil and Argentina. We must take these safety concerns seriously because failing to do so could destroy the domestic beef market and the livelihoods of Montana ranchers.”

Tester has been outspoken about animal health risks. Earlier he opposed USDA’s decision to relocate its diseased animal research from an isolated East Coast island to Kansas, the heart of American agriculture.

Tester also nudged the USDA in the direction of issuing grants for brucellosis research, another disease threatening sales of Montana cattle.

Daines and Tester also secured language directing the USDA to speed up rollout of the rural broadband programs included in the 2014 farm bill. In addition, the USDA is directed to increase the minimum acceptable speeds for broadband service. And the number of eligible service areas for USDA rural broadband programs was also expanded.

“We must make smart investments in rural broadband if we want Main Street businesses and family farms and ranches to stay competitive in the global economy,” Tester said.