Tester begins Farm Bill series in state

by Renee Jean

The wish list for the 2018 Farm Bill looks to be a long one, and discussion of the matter is still in the early stages. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., opened his formal discussions of the matter with an event in Billings Monday — the farthest east he’s planning on that particular tour, though aides said he does plan to be in Sidney for informal discussions before too long.

Tester’s panel included one on beef and cattle and another on pulses and grains. While the wish list was long, some broad themes did emerge, among them keeping the Farm Bill and nutrition together.

“Decoupling nutrition from the Farm Bill is a disaster in my opinion,” said Chris Christians, legislative and project specialist with the Montana Farmers Union. “The simple fact of it is, it’s only because of votes from members of Congress who live in areas of food deficiency that we are guaranteed a farm bill will pass at all. When it makes up 80 percent of a farm bill decoupling would be the end of the farm bill in the future.”

Tester agreed with such assessments, adding that the effort to decouple nutrition from the farm bill is an effort to ultimately kill both measures. 

“The points made about the nutrition and the farm bill are spot on,” Tester said. “They help pull one another forward to get a big enough block to do what is right in both areas. Getting all the farm organizations together and getting behind this does have power. I know we have different perspectives on everything, but the truth is we do understand the value of the Farm Bill.”

Another desire repeated throughout both panels were more timely payments from the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage, the two market-based programs created in the 2014 Farm Bill to assist farmers when prices are low.

Presently the payments come in 14 to 15 months later, which makes them useless for budgeting purposes, says Michelle Erickson-Jones, treasurer of the Montana Grains Association. There is also wide variability in the amounts from county to county, despite similar yield information.

“You don’t know what you are going to get,” she said. “Not only that, you don’t get it until next year. I was not going to put down a number and be wrong, so I put zero there. It doesn’t help your budget.”

One idea, suggested by Gordon Stoner, vice president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, is to make a more timely estimate, then dole out a percentage of it. That would get some of the money to the farmers in the timeframe of need, while at the same helping prevent a situation where the farmer is overpaid and then has to turn around and repay the funds.

Research dollars also need to be expanded, to serve the various farming interests, from best practices for cattle producers to detailed nutrition profiles for pulse growers.

Kim Murray  said companies considering a pea, lentil or chickpea protein into something like a Cheetoh, first and foremost, want to see a breakdown on nutrition.

“We can’t give it to them because we don’t have it,” he said. “We need a lab to e able to get this kind of data.”

Murray said lentil growers have a more aggressive checkoff that has funded some preliminary research on their own to try and get moving, but they need more assistance to get there.

Pulse crops represent a great opportunity for value-added agriculture, added Jillien Streit, who is starting a pulse processing plant in North Central Montana after a storage option she was developing unexpectedly took off.

She wants to see — and Tester agreed it has great merit — more provisions in the next Farm Bill to support ag-based economic development for rural communities. 

“We are backwards from most of the rest of industry,” she says. “They built processing plants and acres came. We planted acres but don’t have a processing factor, which we need here in the state to really capitalize on those products. I would like to see you support areas of the Farm Bill that helps rural communities continue to grow these opportunities.”

Cattle producers, meanwhile talked about short-comings in the present indemnity protections for predation. Presently, grizzly bear sightings are drawing off key personnel with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, making them less available for investigations of coyote depradations. Those investigations are needed to trigger any assistance from one of the three funds available to address the problem.

Not only that, however, but some of the funds are inadequate to serve the great need that is out there. 

There was also much discussion about the situation with low prices for wheat and cattle, two commodities that in years past had seemed to have the consistent pattern of one being low when the other is high.

Not so this time, and that has the Montana representatives of those industries concerned these industries are on a downward death spiral.

“We’ve lost more than 500,000 producers during the past 30 years,” said Bill Bullard, CEO of R-Calf. “Our industry’s cattle cycle, which once predicted short periods of contraction of three to four years and longer periods of expansion of six to seven years is being disrupted.”

Bullard pointed out cattle supplies are historically tight, yet producers are not benefitting from  historically strong cattle prices. It is only retail prices that remain historically high. 

“Producers should have experienced historically strong cattle prices for at least three more years, until 2018,” he said. 

“Instead, the expected long-term upswing in cattle prices was inexplicably compressed into less than 18 months. Since mid-2015, cattle prices have fallen farther and faster than any time in history.”

“When you see a 300 to 350-pound calf going through at 80 cents a pound, that’s enough to make you cry,” agreed Christians. “I heard 100 head of cattle go through and bring an average of a dollar nine a pound and I wondered how long can you stay in business that way?  The price of beef in the store is still high, but what the farmer-producer is making at this point is absolutely ridiculous.”

Wheat, meanwhile, is also facing historically low prices, and it’s a concerning trend, Stoner said.

He used to grow 100 percent wheat, but is now 50 percent pulse, 10 percent corn and 10 percent oil seeds, leaving only 30 percent wheat. Those trends are reflected nationally as well, he said.

“If we keep this trend going, wheat risks becoming a minor crop,” Stoner said. “There are already six classes of wheat and durum alone is only 10 million acres, so it is a niche crop. Some millers and bakers say in 10 years, they’re going to be buying wheat off shore.”

Stoner added he’d seen the recent attack on crop insurance by groups like Heritage Foundation and urged fighting back.

“We look at some of the disasters across the nation, and no one is in your office pounding on your desk, so crop insurance is working,” he said. “We’ve got to defend that.”

Tester, one of the only farmers in Congress, himself joked that he’s been out in the fields digging up scrap iron because prices for commodities he grows have been that bad. While digging, he found an old fender from a tractor he said, which advertised it had 10 horsepower on firm ground. The Senator reflected that much has changed in his industry, but one thing remains true.

“Family farming is the backbone of this country, and if we lose it, we will regret it,” he said. “The 2014 Farm Bill turned into a partisan deal. There are a fair number who don’t think we should spend a penny on subsidies. There may be merit to that, but we need to work together to provide a safety net for the folks who grow food for the nation.”

Tester said he will continue to solicit input from constituents and take notes on ideas, to see what kind of coalitions he can build for the 2018 farm bill. 

“We are early in this conversation,” he said. “As soon as the election is over, we will have a lame duck, so this won’t get taken up in a lame duck by any stretch. It will wait until the next session.”

What may get taken up, however, Tester said, are early payemtns because prices are so low.

“If there is a desire to do that from agriculture states, we may be able to make that happen,” Tester said. “If that happens, I’ll do my best to make sure it does happen, but for now, I am focusing on how the 2018 Farm Bill will look.”

He believes the bill will probably look similar to 2014, with some modifications to improve things like the timeliness of payments, but he said he would be very interested in ideas that revitalize rural communities.

“There is merit to the point Jillian made with using the farm bill to help with economic development,” he said. “We need some ideas on how we can create more jobs, whether it’s adding value to agriculture or whatever it may be.”