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A bill signed into law in Montana would allow the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee to double their wheat and barley checkoffs, if they choose to. (Nick Nelson / Agweek)

Montana Wheat and Barley Committee could raise checkoffs

HELENA, Mont. — The Montana Legislature has given the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee permission to double its checkoffs on wheat and barley, but no decision has been made yet on whether the committee will change the current assessment.

Right now, the state checkoff is 2 cents per bushel on wheat and 3 cents per hundredweight on barley, which is the state limit, explained Collin Watters, bureau chief of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee.

House Bill 151, which was signed into law in March and goes into effect on July 1, would allow the committee to double those assessments. But to do so, the committee has to use the state's rulemaking procedures, which require listening sessions and comment periods. Watters said the committee has not discussed raising or lowering the assessment.

"The board isn't going to raise any assessment or change any assessment at all without plenty of public comment," he said.

The Montana Wheat and Barley Committee uses state checkoff funds to pay for research, market development and educational programs.

Rep. Ross Fitzgerald, R-Fairfield, told the Montana House Agriculture Committee he sponsored the bill at the request of "industry." The Montana Wheat and Barley Committee began in 1967, and the last increase in the maximum assessment it could collect was in 2003.

Lyle Benjamin, a Sunburst, Mont., farmer who serves as president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, told the House Agriculture Committee that raising the maximum assessment would give the farmer-controlled committee more ability to fund research and development. The assessment is voluntary, but farmers opt out only about a half percent of the time, he said.

"It's been a real success story for farmers," he said.

Benjamin also told the Senate Agriculture Committee that the ongoing trade war makes the market development work of the Wheat and Barley Committee especially important.

Watters said that while there is no immediate plan to increase the checkoff, he can see a possibility of a future increase of the barley assessment. Barley accounts for 10% to 12% of assessments that come in but barley research and market development gets closer to 20% of our budget. Watters explained that outside of malt barley, not much barley gets sold publicly. Instead, farmers grow it for feed for themselves or for their neighbors.

Watters said research into barley, including malt quality and possible winter barley lines, is paying off for growers and may need more money to continue.

While the collection of assessments is overseen by the Montana Department of Agriculture, the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, made up of farmers, makes all decisions on spending and collections, explained Cort Jensen, attorney for the Ag Department.

"We support what the farmers want to do with their checkoff," he told the Legislature's agriculture committees, noting the department would support farmers' decisions to raise or lower assessments.