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Published February 20, 2013, 02:30 PM

ND delegation will push 5-year farm bill

Offers optimism for 2013 passage.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota’s congressional delegation members say they’ll work to run a new, five-year farm bill up the congressional flagpole again in the next few months. All offer optimism the bill can pass this year.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., at the Fargo Holiday Inn, on Feb. 20, led an ag issues roundtable discussion that included colleagues Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. About 20 leaders from most commodity and farm groups in the state attended the meeting, which is the first of its type since Heitkamp and Cramer have been elected to their posts.

Hoeven says he’ll again support provisions that include the basic framework in a five-year farm bill that passed the full Senate on June 21. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has talked about taking a bill to a committee bill mark-up in March.

Hoeven says he’ll likely be a part of that, adding provisions to disconnect crop insurance from conservation compliance and to keep a counter-cyclical program in the bill to keep southern senators on board. He’d also like to simplify wetlands compliance. Hoeven thinks a bill can be passed if proponents continue to talk about how it helps ensure an abundant, affordable food supply for the country.

Like last year’s Senate bill, Hoeven says he’d cut $23 billion from agriculture spending over a 10-year budget projection and retain enhanced crop insurance. The House Agriculture Committee passed a separate bill with deeper agriculture cuts, but it never went to the floor, as House Republicans struggled to control spending without raising taxes.

Some state ag leaders in the issues roundtable talked about the threat of federal “sequestration” — a self-imposed, across-the-board cutting of spending because of a failure to find common ground to solve the federal debt crisis. Sequestration will cut $16 billion from agriculture programs.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said sequestration in his department, among other things, could mean imposing 15-day furloughs for meat inspectors, effectively shutting down livestock slaughter plants and raising prices for meat. Vilsack also has talked about imposing hiring freezes and furloughs for the Farm Service Agency, whose workers handle farm program benefits for farmers.

Influence of farm groups

Heitkamp says the question of whether a coalition of congressional members can be held together to pass a bill boils down to farm groups themselves. “It goes back to you: can you hang together?” she says. “When someone comes and offers a program that works for you, are you going to hang with the rest of these guys?”

Keith Johnson, vice chairman of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, from Sharon, N.D., says his organization is scared of sequestration and the effect on livestock markets. Johnson says the recent closing of one slaughter facility “cost me and my sons $10,000,” and that the government threat of shut-downs from inspector furloughs could cost considerably more in a time when futures markets area already shaky and another drought year looms.

Hoeven says he’ll support legislation that would “make sure the administration has the flexibility” to selectively make cuts, instead of sequestration, so that meat inspectors don’t have to be furloughed. He says he thinks the administration already has the authority to make meat inspectors essential employees that can’t be cut, but he wants that to be clear. He adds Republicans can’t push that through the Senate without administration and Democrats agree to do it.

Heitkamp says farmers should be wary of giving that flexibility to the administration because an administration might cut something farmers find vital.

David Berg, president and CEO of American Crystal Sugar Co., told the legislators that the no-cost federal sugar program is facing much more pointed opposition than in the past. He noted that U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., in late January introduced a bill that would phase out sugar supports.

“Meantime sugar prices are dropping like a rock” after three years of exceptionally high prices, Berg says. Shaheen says the sugar program costs consumers $4 billion a year to support 4,700 sugar cane and sugar beet growers. Berg says the program “just keeps us at break-even.”

Hoeven agrees that eliminating sugar programs is a “short-sighted strategy” because in the long term, sugar prices will be higher.

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