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Published March 22, 2012, 05:29 PM

Certainty?

MOORHEAD, Minn. — A meeting billed as a “listening session” for the 2012 farm bill touched lightly on all topics and just barely on topics of crop insurance and the sugar program.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

MOORHEAD, Minn. — A meeting billed as a “listening session” for the 2012 farm bill touched lightly on all topics and just barely on topics of crop insurance and the sugar program.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Minnesota’s senior senator and a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is holding a series of discussions amid Senate ag hearings and budget cuts looming in the U.S. House.

Klobuchar appeared at the one-hour meeting in Moorhead, Minn., March 22, via a recorded message. In it, the senator expressed her desire that the farm bill be passed this year, and not use the “band-aid” approach to extending it until 2013. She said first and foremost she wants the bill to maintain a “strong safety net” for dairy, sugar and other farmers.

Charles “Chuck” Ackman, a Klobuchar regional outreach staffer, led the meeting that he described as a kind of “focus group.” Among the most alarming issues is a budget proposal by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the Budget Committee, which would cut $30 billion in crop insurance, $133 billion in nutrition and $25 billion in conservation programs over the next 10 years.

This is greater than a $23 billion total cut that had been part of a compromise before Christmas, said Adam Durand, a legislative assistant on agriculture. He said it is important to his boss to pass a bill that gives “certainty” to farmers and their lenders.

Ackman noted that it is “important we hear a few magic words,” in the meeting, specifically “crop insurance.”

This prompted a statement from Jay Nord, Wolverton, Minn., first vice president of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers. “Realizing that direct payments have been thrown under the bus a long time ago,” Nord said, crop insurance becomes more important. He said it is important for the farm bill to have a permanent disaster provision. He said it’s now called a “shallow-loss” program but “won’t kick in until you have a big loss.”

Nick Sinner, executive vice president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been setting the price selection for crop insurance. “That’s worked very well for us,” Sinner said. “We have a little more work to do on this for replant provisions.”

Sugar program works

Otherwise, Sinner said the sugar program is working — a no-cost program, administered the way it’s supposed to be administered. “It’s doing all the things with rural development that it was intended to do — keeping people on the land, keeping main street businesses open, and doing that at no cost to the government.” He said he hopes the sugar program can “fly under the radar” and that the farm bill will be finished by the end of the year.

Six locked-out members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union introduced themselves and said little else, wearing red shirts that said “Save the Sugar Program. End the Lockout.”

Ken Pazdernik, a Minnesota Farmers Union regional staffer and a former long-time Extension Service agent for Norman County in Ada, Minn., said his organization works for the farmer and “also with labor.” “We have a number of people in the room that are of concern with the lockout,” he said, saying the MFU would like to encourage negotiation to bring the parties together. “As an organization we feel we’re kind of on the outside but the people who are being hurt, and also the management is here.”

Tom Astrup, chief financial officer for American Crystal Sugar Co., attended the meeting, but did not speak.

Similarly, Diane Ista, who is from Moorhead and whose family raises sugar beets in the Ada, Minn., area and has been strongly connected to Democratic politics, told the meeting that the breakdown in negotiations between the co-op and its labor union has been “a horrendous disappointment to me.”

“I feel (our sugar program) is threatened by this, and we worked so hard to get it for our economy in the Red River Valley,” she said. “I’m very frightened for the Red River Valley, but for our sugar industry throughout the whole United States,” Ista said.

“I appreciate the comments,” Ackman said. “But it’s outside the scope of the farm bill.”

“No it’s not, the sugar program is in the farm bill,” Ista said.

“Yeah, I understand,” Ackman said, adding, “That said, we are out of time.”

In the past, Crystal sugar lobbyists repeatedly have said they think the sugar provisions can be preserved in the farm bill, regardless of the company’s impasse with its labor union.

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