Tester grills Perdue over Fort Keogh closure

by Miles City Star

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) grilled newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue about the proposed closure of the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Agriculture meeting Tuesday.

And while he received no assurances, Perdue made it clear that he supports research to help ag producers.

Tester said the research conducted at Fort Keogh has proven invaluable to ranchers, allowing them to increase production.

“It has been around since 1924 and it has proven benefits to ranchers I think throughout the country, and unequivocally in the arid areas of this country, and it’s set to close down. I would ask why would we be doing that,” Tester said. “We’ve got more cattle than we’ve got people in Montana.”

Perdue, who was a veterinarian and Governor of Georgia before he became Secretary of Agriculture, seemed to indicate that Tester need not worry.

“I have expressed my favor and my enthusiasm for research in ag production and various components of that. I think since you invited me to be an adviser to this committee, you’ll be happy about the results.”

On its website Fort Keogh currently lists 13 ongoing projects under Food Animal Production, and the same number in Pasture, Forage and Rangeland Systems, although there is some overlap. It is the only Agricultural Research Service station located in the arid high plains region doing research on agriculture in that climate.

The 55,000-acre facility located just outside Miles City has been slated for closure in the Trump administration’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year.

John Laney, executive director of the Miles City Area Chamber of Commerce, has been involved in an effort to save Fort Keogh.

“We kind of caught wind that the budget isn’t being received with much favor. We are kind of waiting for numbers” to see if they will need to go forward with their efforts to keep Fort Keogh from closing.

The loss of Fort Keogh would have a devastating impact on the economy of southeastern Montana.

According the Mark Petersen, reaseach leader at Fort Keogh, the facility has an annual budget of about $4.5 million budget. About $3.5 million is appropriated from the federal governement and $1 million is from Montana State University livestock receipts. Fort Keogh sells over $1 million of cattle each year.

More than 80 percent of the expended dollars are spent in Miles City, Petersen said. Fort Keogh has 20 USDA employees and 17 MSU employees.

Tester noted at the meeting that there is “bi-partisan concern” with Trump’s proposed budget. “I gather the priorities in this budget aren’t your priorities,” he said to Perdue.

Tester voted to confirm Perdue, he said, because he believed Perdue understood “production agriculture” and the challenges facing rural America.

Tester had opened his questioning of Perdue over the deep cuts to crop insurance and commodity support – $38 billion over the next 10 years. He mentioned that Perdue had said, during his visit to Montana, that he wouldn’t buy house insurance and hope that his house burned down, a statement Tester said he found “a little bit disturbing.”

Teseter also said that there wasn’t a farmer alive “who wouldn’t rather get the check from the grain elevator or the livestock market rather than the federal government.”

He spoke about losing his own barley crop because of a heavy rain the day before he planned to cut. “Mother Nature is Mother Nature,” he said.

Tester said that due to the importance of agriculture, producers need a “safety net.”

“Times aren’t always good in ag, we know that, and quite frankly, when prices drop, there needs to be a safety net to help manage risk,” Tester said. He added that “taking a step backwards” in times of low commodity prices was a problem. “I think this budget takes a giant step back.”

Tester also noted that the prices for barley were about the same today as when he took over his farm in northwestern Montana in 1978 and that prices for equipment were considerably higher.

Funding for rural development has also been reduced by 20 percent in the proposed budget. The program provides small business loans and helps pay for water projects and housing initiatives in rural areas.

Tester said rural water projects will be eliminated due to this cut. “You and I won’t see the negative effectives until you and I are both out of these positions,” he told Perdue. “Rural America is drying up,” said Tester.

Perdue responded by stating his support for rural development programs.

“Rural development has addressed some very serious needs. I like the fact that these are ‘skin-in-the-game’ programs where local needs are met with federal help and accomplish things that are really good,” he said.

Perdue ended by saying that Tester wouldn’t “find a stronger advocate for those things that you and I agree on.”