Montana Legislature will wrestle with variety of ag issues
HELENA, Mont. -- Major players in the formation of Montana agricultural policy anticipate an active 2017 Legislative Session, slated to begin Jan. 2. in Helena.
HELENA, Mont. - Major players in the formation of Montana agricultural policy anticipate an active 2017 Legislative Session, slated to begin Jan. 2. in Helena.
Lola Raska, executive vice president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, says ag research centers, university research and the state pesticide program for applicators are important programs that need to be adequately funded.
Jay Bodner, director of natural resources and lobbyist for Montana Stockgrowers Association, says keeping the Department of Livestock as a stand-alone agency run by a producer board with a balanced budget is a continued focus, as is funding the vet diagnostic lab and the brucellosis surveillance program.
Chelcie Cargill, Montana Farm Bureau's state affairs officer, expects a discussion on water rights as they pertain to new subdivisions. The organization is working with building industry officials to reach a compromise on the use of exempt wells - those that use 35 gallons of water or less per minute, or less than 10 water acres per year. The state Supreme Court in September limited the use of exempt wells in new construction in favor of agricultural rights, and Farm Bureau wants to make sure the matter gets settled by law.
Bodner says the Stockgrowers Association also wants to make sure the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Water Court stay on track to complete water rights adjudication by 2028.
Lyndsay Bruno, communications director for Montana Farmers Union, says ensuring producers in areas of oil and gas extraction have the ability to get their water tested before drilling begins so they can monitor quality issues is a focus.
Cargill expects a "corner crossing" bill, similar to one that failed in the 2013 Legislature, which would allow people to cross from one piece of public land to another when such parcels meet up at corners, without permission of neighboring landowners. Farm Bureau will oppose the effort as an intrusion on private property rights, she says.
Bruno says bills that deal with property taxes or with land valuations also will be important in protecting farmers' and ranchers' interests.
Raska expects a bill to exempt farmers and others taking soil samples from Call Before You Dig program requirements, as calling 811 every time a soil sample is needed would be onerous.
Bruno says Farmers Union is pushing for an agritourism bill that would make agritourism a recreation activity and offer some protection against risk for producers who invite the public onto their land. She knows of about 40 producers who would be interested in agritourism if the law added more certainty.
"Especially with the way commodity prices are right now, it could be a great help to producers," she says.
Raska thinks a right-to-farm proposal that would prevent counties and local governments from regulating seeds could be a hot topic. Other states, including Oregon, Hawaii and California, have experienced local government regulation of seeds, usually because of anti-biotech leanings.
"We don't have any of that in Montana but we know other states that do, so we're trying to get ahead of that," she says.
Bodner says the state's sage grouse habitat covers about a third of the state, and a protection program will need more funding to make sure there is enough money for mitigation efforts by landowners.
Another problem that will need to be addressed is the expansion of grizzly bears. Bodner says grizzlies have killed livestock, and public safety also is at risk. Funding for mitigation efforts, including carcass removal and electric fencing, could help landowners deal with the bears, he says.