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Published January 09, 2012, 08:45 PM

Farm bill roundtable highlights budget woes

FARGO, N.D. – Agricultural leaders are worried the safety net for farm income will be trampled by federal budget warriors in what one official described a “sprint that’s turned into a marathon” in the political effort to replace the 2008 farm bill.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. – Agricultural leaders are worried the safety net for farm income will be trampled by federal budget warriors in what one official described a “sprint that’s turned into a marathon” in the political effort to replace the 2008 farm bill.

A Jan. 9 roundtable, hosted by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, marks another start after a failed effort before Christmas. Then, congressional ag leaders sent a proposal to a bipartisan congressional Super Committee. They proposed budget cuts to farm bill totaling $23 billion over 10 years, only to see the larger effort fail.

Still, Hoeven described the Super Committee proposal as a nucleus to build around and emphasized his commitment to strong crop insurance, counter-cyclical support, disaster programs and research programs that farmer groups have supported.

A freshman senator, Hoeven repeated that it is the goal of the congressional ag leaders to complete a new, multiyear ag bill this year, although the hurdles seem to get higher as time goes by.

The roundtable, co-hosted by Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., didn’t shed much light on the process, or even what needs to be done. Berg said he’d know more when House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Ark., comes to the state later this week.

Hoeven says it’s unclear whether Congress can build on the Super Committee proposal, or whether even more cuts are on the way.

Some privately say the opportunities to pass something are before a May recess, or before an August recess. If not, the current policy might be extended past the presidential election in November, only to be considered again in 2013 when budget cutting environment might be either better or worse.

Sandy Clark, a public policy director for the North Dakota Farm Bureau, asked whether Hoeven could arrange a Senate agriculture field hearing on the farm bill in North Dakota. Hoeven initially said “I would think so,” but later seemed to say it was simply a possibility.

In terms of specific proposals, to address particular needs, Hoeven said he is using his position on the Senate Appropriations Committee agricultural subcommittee to shore up the Waterbank program which could help North Dakota farmers with inundated land.

Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, also a Republican, recounted that he’d gathered the state ag organizations last August to prepare a priority list for the federal farm bill. That hasn’t changed, and the centerpiece is a strong crop insurance program, as well as support for counter-cyclical revenue programs, disaster programs, research, trade and market access programs.

Farm groups sound off

Farm leaders offered a number of specific requests and suggestions, not all directly connected to the farm bill:

• Paul Rutherford, president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers, asked simply to keep the current sugar title as it is written. Robert Green, chairman of the board of American Crystal Sugar Co., said the farm bill provided steady or declining support levels for sugar producers over 26 years, but has taken a significant upturn because of demand in the past three years.

• Ryan Pederson, president of the Northern Canola Growers, from Rolette, N.D., urged changes in the price discovery timing for certain crop insurance programs, so they can be done before farmers have invested in their crops.

• Brad Thykeson, first vice president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, was one of several officials worried about linking conservation compliance to crop insurance, and to increasing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency power over farmers.

• Steve Edwardson, North Dakota Barley Council executive administrator, urged the delegation to make sure the so-called “508(h)” funding is retained that allows private companies to develop and improve new crop insurance products.

• Jeff Hamre, executive director of the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association, asked the congressional delegation to keep an eye on the so-called “LightSquared” issue, where a company is proposing changes in the use of the wireless broadband spectrum, which farm groups fear would change Global Positioning System reliability for use in precision farming. Berg said the issue has been put on ice for the time being. It isn’t part of the farm bill. He also asked for continued emphasis on research, specifically the National Sclerotinia Initiative.

• Wallie Hardie, a Fairmount, N.D., farmer and former president of the National Corn Growers Association, took the opportunity to complain about the backlog of field drainage wetlands determinations at his federal Natural Resources and Conservation Service office. He said he’s had some requests in process for two to three years. Local officials just don’t want to deal with it, or simply may not want to change a wetland designation to allow drainage, which Hardie says should actually reduce flooding by creating a “four-foot sponge” in the soil.

Later this week, Berg will host Chairman Lucas, who will visit North Dakota on Jan. 12 – first at a $150 a person breakfast fundraiser at the Bismarck Civic Center, followed by a free roundtable at 9:30 a.m. Then Lucas will appear at a free 2 p.m. roundtable at the Fargo Holiday Inn, followed by fundraising events of $200 and $1,000 per person.

The event was held in the conference room of NDSU’s new $35 million greenhouse complex, that Hoeven had helped make possible while he was governor. Scientists started occupying it in August. The facility was largely state-financed, but much of the work was indirectly supported by federal dollars, which also face cuts. None of the space is rented by private companies because of the demand by campus researchers.

NDSU President Dean Bresciani and Ken Grafton, vice president and dean of agriculture, stressed their concerns about continuing research funding so that the institution can capitalize on the investments the state and other federal and private partners have made.

Missing from the Republican-led roundtable was Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who has been a force in negotiating the last two farm bills but who has announced he won’t run again in 2012. Scott Stofferahn, a key Conrad staffer on the topic, sat silently in the back of the roundtable room until Hoeven invited him for a comment.

“Go Bison,” was all Stofferahn said.