Montanans give Tester food for thought

Helena Independent Record

by Sanjay Talwani

The Farm Bill is coming up for reauthorization by Congress in 2012, and the massive policy piece will have consequences for Montana farmers and ranchers, with ripple effects across the state and its economy.

A group of about 10 people representing farmers, ranchers, food retailers and others on Wednesday told Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., what the government can or shouldn’t do to keep food production viable here and what the farmer-senator can tell his Washington colleagues when the bill comes up.

First, there’s ethanol; most in the room didn’t like it. They also told him of growing livestock predation by wolves, and how hard it is for new and small farmers to stay afloat.

Feed costs “have gone through the roof” over the past four years or so, said Bruce Samson, president of the Montana Pork Producers Council and Montana Hog Marketing Association.

He agreed with Tester that the costs for barley feed rose in conjunction with the subsidies to corn growers related to ethanol production.

“The livestock price hasn’t gone up so you can survive with the high feed costs,” Samson said.

Jay Bodner of the Montana Stockgrowers Association agreed, saying the high feed costs drive down the price that feedlots are able to pay for calves in the fall. “And that kind of impacts our industry all the way down,” he said.

Bodner said many in his industry would support ethanol if it could survive without subsidies. “Certainly that’s a great opportunity, you should take advantage of it,” he said. “But you only can cover those costs for so long.”

Tester noted that ethanol production doesn’t seem to result in a net energy gain. “That’s a real problem,” he said.

Laughing Water, co-owner of the Real Food Store in Helena, said he’s all for subsidies for alternative and renewable energy sources that make sense. But he called turning food into fuel a big mistake.

“That’s not just a pocketbook issue, but to me it’s really a huge moral issue,” he said, pointing to food insecurity in the United States and 1 billion people worldwide without enough food.

But, he said, “Iowa votes first, and they grow a lot of corn.”

Tester said the nation’s tough financial situation creates an additional argument against ethanol subsidies.

“The national debt will make people look at every program we’ve got,” he said.

Doug Crabtree, Tester said, is an unusual farmer these days — he’s new to it, commuting to an organic farm near Havre while keeping a Helena job.

Crabtree spoke up for real limits for payments to big commodity producers. “Way too much of it is going to way few people,” he said.

And the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said, should be better at advocacy for people going into farming.

“It’s very difficult as a new producer to understand how to access these programs,” he said.

Difficult access to health care is another major barrier to entry for farmers, Crabtree said. He’d like a program in which anyone getting a Farm Services Agency loan should be eligible to buy into the group insurance plan for federal employees.

And, he said, there’s an office of advocacy and outreach in the USDA that has “languished without a director for more than two years,” Crabtree said.

Getting that position filled could help Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack better understand conditions on the ground, he said.

Tester said his amendment to the Food Safety Bill, passed and signed into law, exempts small, local and direct-to-consumer producers from the new federal regulations, instead keeping them under state and local control.

In a meeting earlier in the day with the Independent Record editorial board, Tester noted that while he is not on the Senate Agriculture committee, despite being one of only two farmers in the Senate, he will play an active role in lending background and credibility to the process. He hinted at possible ways to create jobs in rural America, such as the creation of a Farm Corps, much like the Job Corps, or low-interest loan programs for farmers in general.

For wool growers the single biggest issue may be predator control and livestock protection, said Jim Brown, director of public affairs for the Montana Wool Growers Association. Livestock losses are attributable both to wolves since their reintroduction in 1995 and to increased attacks from coyotes, due to growers’ inability to use coyote control methods in areas inhabited by wolves, leaving growers more dependent on government predator control programs.

In a letter to Tester, Brown said the association supports a measure carried by Tester and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to reduce protection of wolves, but he also urged Tester to support broader legislation by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

“Any time you don’t manage something that’s at the top of the food chain you’re asking for trouble,” Tester said.