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Published October 19, 2010, 08:33 AM

Appointee Goehring looks to defend his ag post from challenger Boucher

FARGO, N.D. — The 2010 race for North Dakota agriculture commissioner pits an incumbent Republican appointee against a Democrat challenger — the minority leader in the state House of Representatives.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — The 2010 race for North Dakota agriculture commissioner pits an incumbent Republican appointee against a Democrat challenger — the minority leader in the state House of Representatives.

Neither has won a statewide office, but that is likely to change on Nov. 2.

Republican Doug Goehring, 45, has been agriculture commissioner since North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven appointed him to the post April 6, 2009. Goehring replaced Roger Johnson, a Democrat-NPLer who he’d challenged unsuccessfully in 2004 and 2006. Johnson surprised Republicans by leaving the post to become president of the National Farmers Union.

The challenger, Democrat Merle Boucher, 64, has been the minority leader in the North Dakota House of Representatives since 1990. Boucher was a part-time cattleman and educator, but stopped teaching 20 years ago, allowing his legislative duties to grow. He was an unsuccessful Democratic nominee for governor in 2008.

The ag commissioner post is largely regulatory and is the only nonappointed post of its type in the four-state area. The post pays $89,000, and the office-holder has statutory authority to sit on several permanent commissions and boards, most significantly on the North Dakota Industrial Commission and state water commission.

Candidates Goehring and Boucher have met twice for debates. The first was at the North Dakota State Fair in Minot and at the Big Iron XXX ag trade show in West Fargo, N.D. No other debates are planned. Goehring says polling as of early September finds him with a double-digit lead against Boucher. Goehring says the race’s budget is about $160,000, as advertising rates have “gone through the roof” since he first ran for the post, six years ago. He says he’s put out 3,000 signs.Farming backgrounds

Both candidates tout their farming/ranching credentials.

Goehring is an active crop farmer who lives about 20 miles from Bismarck, N.D., south of Menoken, N.D. He and a son run an 1,850-acre farm that Goehring established in 1990.

The commissioner’s parents farmed full-time through his early childhood. His father later was a service manager for a local implement dealership and farmed part time. His family had been active in the left-leaning North Dakota Farmers Union. Trained as a medical technician, Goehring started his own farm by purchasing land through his maternal grandmother. He took over management in 1990 and started farming full time in 1993. Along the way, he bought a Nodak Mutual Insurance Co. insurance policy, which made him a member of the Burleigh County Farm Bureau. Goehring became a full-time farmer in 1993 and ascended to county and then state Farm Bureau roles. He eventually was chairman of the board of Nodak Mutual Insurance Co. and vice president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau. He also was active in soybean association leadership at the state and national levels.

Educated in Bottineau and at Mayville (N.D.) State University, Boucher returned home in 1970 to Rolette, N.D., to teach social studies, coach sports and grazes about 60 of his own stock cows, His 1,100 acres include 600 acres of Conservation Reserve Program land and the rest grazing, including 100 leased cows.

Boucher has been a state representative since 1990, winning four two-year terms and three four-year terms — only challenged once. His District 9 follows the boundaries of North Dakota’s Rolette County — the only one like it in the state. Voters there typically go 75 percent for Democratic presidential races. His district has a large percentage Native Americans. He quit teaching in 1990 and was elected floor leader for the Democrats in the 1997 Legislature, a post he’s kept since then. His wife, Susan, is a music teacher.

“One of my big frustrations and disappointments is that I’ve spent my entire career in the minority,” Boucher says, although Democratic caucus has slowly grown.

He says the minority leadership’s role is to “lead the discussion” and “create the debate” and often see their ideas first voted down, then passing under a majority banner. He says he’s been instrumental in property tax reform and water system advocacy. He gave up his legislative post to run for the commissioner job.

Boucher has packaged some of his campaign to specific areas of the state, promising to promote infrastructure improvements such as roads and bridges in the oil patch regions and in the flood-plagued Devils Lake basin.

Environmental rules

With 19 months on the job under his belt, Goehring has a record in the post.

He says he’s emphasized agricultural research and the need to develop international trade to find markets for the 15 crops for which North Dakota ranks No. 1.

“By 2050, there’s going to be 9 billion people on the face of the earth, and we’re going to have to produce 70 percent more food,” he says.

Boucher says trade is important, but also emphasizes that the “bulk of ag production is consumed domestically” and says it’s important to be more food- and energy-independent.

Goehring’s ads say the agricultural industry is “under attack” by federal rules that are unreasonable, covering pesticides, dust and greenhouse gases. He says farmers need time to assess their situation, to budget for changes and sometimes time to construct.

Boucher has characterized this as “finger-pointing” and blame. Largely, Boucher says, Goehring seems too focused on rules and regulations being promulgated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which Goehring says could have “unintended consequences” of putting farmers out of business. Boucher disagrees with Goehring’s rhetoric that the EPA is agriculture’s “biggest problem,” even though Boucher acknowledges it is at times “problematic.” The rules, he says, have “come into existence because of problems.”

Goehring says his EPA focus started a few days after he was appointed, after a federal district court overturned an EPA ruling that permitted aquatic pesticide applications, specifically exempting them from the Clean Water Act. Subsequently, the EPA issued a ruling on ruling on the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, affecting pesticides used over water. The court had imposed an enforcement deadline by April 2011.

Goehring says pesticides historically have been regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act jurisdiction, not the Clean Water Act. He says that will have unintended consequences for farmers.

“In certain products, the EPA would require such extreme buffers of 150 to 450 feet around a pothole,” he says.

Lacking ag insight?

“You look at the people who were put into those political positions in the EPA, people like (EPA Administrator) Lisa Jackson, and go through the regions, people who are put in place to oversee, implement and run EPA, and those people do have a different mindset, I believe,” Goehring says. “They lack the understanding of agriculture and the impacts” on agriculture. They don’t see the unintended consequences of their actions, or their regulations — the unrealistic expectations they’re putting on business and agriculture.”

Goehring says the state ag department implements and enforces some EPA programs, but others are handled specifically by EPA.

“There are good people who work at the EPA,” Goehring says.

This summer, he hosted several EPA people in a North Dakota Grain Growers Association annual tour, with stops including his own farm. There, he says, he showed them the difficulties of imposing buffers around wetlands that are there for a few days, a few months, or are more permanent.

“It’s easy to establish rules for something more permanent, but what do you do with the rest of it?” Goehring says.

He says one of his jobs is to encourage ordinary farmers to pay attention to the rules coming out of the agency and to comment about the affect of proposed rules. He also says his own department stays in contact with the agency so that it can make comments.

“Regulations are necessary,” he says. “You need to have boundaries and guidelines established so people know exactly what they need to do for the safety of others, for the enhancement and protection of the environment.”

First, study mindset

When new regulations with agricultural consequences come out, he says his first job is to understand why.

“If we can understand what they’re thinking, maybe we can help them get to their goal in a different manner,” he says.

Another example is the Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure rule, which will requires that farms have a containment system and plan in place in the event that they may “potentially discharge into the waters of the U.S.” Last February, Goehring’s ag department found out that the new rules would be enforced starting Nov. 10, 2011.

“We asked them to put together materials,” for educating farmers, in a concise, simplified way, and hold educational meetings, Goehring says.

Goehring says he’s been told that North Dakota, even under his predecessor, initiated an education program, which now results in 76 percent compliance for EPA rules that his department implements on such things as fertilizer and pesticide programs. If there are violations, typically there is a warning and only fines when violators fail to correct the situation. The EPA says the average for compliance is 30 to 40 percent.

An independent voice?

As with most challengers, Boucher has focused on areas where he’d do things differently than the incumbent.

Boucher says as a member of the Industrial Commission, which includes the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner — currently all Republicans — he’d offer a new, independent voice. The commission acts as a board of directors of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and State Mill and Elevator. The challenger generally suggests that he’d be an independent voice on the commission, suggesting that Goehring might not be.

Goehring acknowledges that he doesn’t remember a single vote on the Industrial Commission where he’s voted in opposition to the other two Republicans.

“I suppose we share a philosophy that we should provide tools that assist individuals and industry to succeed, probably helps,” he says.

He says his style is mostly to ask questions and move policy to a point where resolutions can be unanimous. Besides, he says, “When you have a business plan that works, why change?”

Boucher also talks vaguely about a need to strengthen or enforce the state’s anti-corporate farming laws and curb influence of multinational corporations, where ownership of farming interests is “outsourced.” Boucher says he’d like to launch a “Next Generation Agriculture Commission,” analogous to Roger Johnson’s Commission on the Future of Agriculture,” to address anti-corporate farming issues.

The challenger points to 2010 priority items by the North Dakota Farm Bureau, which would “allow capital investment by unrelated individuals in the nonfamily member investors in the family-owned farm corporation.” He can’t point to specific corporate farming threats, except to say that “large supplier companies” extend credit to farmers and get too much power over farm decisions.

Goehring says that though he was vice president of the state Farm Bureau, and shares in the group’s philosophy, he doesn’t mean always agree with every resolution that members vote for. He says it’s not a “priority” for him to advocate any changes in the current corporate farming legislation and isn’t aware of any violations. If the law were changed, it could be out of “fear” that anti-corporate farming laws in other states have been challenged in the courts.

That said, Goehring suggests that one of the problems for young or beginning farmers is a lack of availability of capital.