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Senate holds farm bill field hearing

FARGO, N.D. - Keep the safety net. Improve it with permanent disaster provisions. Those were the messages to Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who chaired a field hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee on the 2007 farm bill April 3 in Fargo, N.D. Th...

FARGO, N.D. - Keep the safety net.

Improve it with permanent disaster provisions.

Those were the messages to Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who chaired a field hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee on the 2007 farm bill April 3 in Fargo, N.D. The panel included Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven testified, and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, sat in.

Conrad opened the 2½-hour hearing with his own priorities for a 2007 farm bill - primarily strengthening crop insurance, including permanent disaster provisions in the farm program, and opportunities to "take advantage of an extraordinary opportunity in energy" development.

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Conrad says conservation programs need to be improved, with better balance among commodities - themes that largely were echoed by the groups attending the session. Conrad cites statistics from past years that indicate Europeans are outspending the U.S. government 5-1 on per-acre supports and outspending on export subsidies "87-1."

Meanwhile, Brazil, Argentina and China have been manipulating their currency to gain unfair advantage. Conrad, says the U.S. budget continues to put pressure on federal spending.

Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Conrad says there are those who think he can "wave a magic wand" and provide resources for agriculture.

"I can't be writing blank checks for any part of the budget," he says, adding that agriculture will have to "set a good example" for budget responsibility.

Minnesotans speak

Klobuchar, attending her first career Senate field hearing, asked group officials whether the Conservation Security Program might focus on funding cellulosic ethanol.

She also asked about availability of E85 (85 percent ethanol mix) pumps, which Jocie Iszler, representing the North Dakota Renewable Energy Partnership, says have more to do with the availability of ethanol at competitive prices. Klobuchar also is concerned about Bush administration proposals that would pay for disasters only when countywide losses exceed 10 percent.

Coleman focused primarily on energy and sugar topics in his statements and questions, calling on North Dakotans to work with counterparts in his state on research efforts. He says the U.S. has "got to stop putting petro dollars in the pockets of thugs" and must move quickly to cellulosic ethanol production.

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Coleman says he isn't happy with the Bush administration's negotiations to lessen the blow of sugar provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement and asked whether a sugar-to-ethanol policy should be in place to "sop up" some of the excess sugar that could come into the U.S. market.

Bill Hejl, Amenia, N.D., president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, says his group hasn't defined a position on the sugar-ethanol issue but is studying it. Hejl says the U.S. government needs to make a reasonable deal with Mexico, especially considering the influx of sugar from Guatemala into Mexico, only to be exported into the U.S. He says it's not good enough to fix problems after they've occurred.

"There is no justice in winning a dispute, once your business is dying," Hejl says.

Hoeven emphasizes that farm supports benefit the whole nation, despite critical stories in the national press. Hoeven wants mostly tweaks to ensure pricing is fair among commodity groups. He says farmers need better risk management tools that are "coordinated" with the countercyclical safety net. He specifically notes that proposals for a so-called "gap" insurance program are only good if they're well coordinated with other support programs.

Johnson comments

Roger Johnson, North Dakota's ag commissioner, says the current difficulty in passing ad hoc disaster legislation "underscores" the need for permanent disaster legislation. Johnson, incoming president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, offers a "factor-based" formula that would provide bigger disaster protection coverage, increasing revenue shortfalls as a farmer buys higher levels of crop insurance protection.

Johnson would like to see a program similar to the Conservation Reserve Program to offer incentives for farmers to produce crops specifically designed for cellulosic ethanol. Coleman cautions that cellulosic ethanol development cannot pit energy against conservation needs.

Johnson and Robert Carlson, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, are calling for improving payment limitations by eliminating provisions that allow farmers to participate in several "entities" - loopholes.

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Brian Kramer, policy public policy director for the North Dakota Farm Bureau, says his organization opposes changes to current payment limitations, saying more rules would impose a "regulatory burden" that will increase costs and cut efficiency.

Conrad is asking members of a commodity panel to defend farm support programs, especially in light of recent "hostility" in national media - especially the Washington Post.

Among the responders, Iszler, representing the North Dakota Renewable Energy Partnership, says the nation's support of programs helps keep U.S. food prices low - roughly 9.7 percent of income.

The NDFU's Carlson says that while the average U.S. farm income is $76,000, about 80 percent of that is off-farm income.

"We can do better than that," he says.

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