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By Caroline Downs
Even as the U.S. House Agriculture Committee marked up a version of the proposed Farm Bill on July 11th, area producers met in Kenmare with staff members from North Dakota’s congressional delegation to discuss the legislation.
About two dozen farmers attended the Farm Bill Forum held at Kenmare High School to talk with Scott Stofferahn from Senator Conrad’s office, Tom Brusegaard from Senator Hoeven’s office, and Bob Christman from Congressman Berg’s office. The event was sponsored by North Dakota Farmers Union and hosted by NDFU President Elwood “Woody” Barth.
Stofferahn described basic elements of the Senate’s version of the bill, which has already been passed by that chamber. “It includes the programs we’re all accustomed to and the food programs,” he said.
Ag Risk Coverage
He noted a new Ag Risk Coverage (ARC) program was created by combining the best components of the ACRE and insurance programs in the former farm bill. “For both Senator Conrad and Senator Hoeven, it’s been a big priority that this had some meaning at the farm level,” he said. “There’s an option for producers to choose their level of coverage, at either the 65 percent payment rate at the farm level or 80 percent at the county level.”
Brusegaard noted one of Senator Hoeven’s priorities for the bill was to offer crop insurance that was affordable, adaptable and useful. “From producers, we’ve heard it was important for you to be able to manage risk and have some certainty,” he said, adding that the proposed ARC should meet those needs.
Stofferahn said Senator Conrad’s office was looking forward to seeing the House version of the Farm Bill pass so the two chambers could begin their work in conference committee to hammer out a version to be approved and signed into law. He didn’t believe a conference committee would meet on the bill before Congress’s August recess.
Current Farm Bill
expires September 30
The current Farm Bill expires September 30, 2012, and Christman noted Congressman Berg’s office was working to get a new bill in place before that deadline. One major difference between the two versions of the bill is the reduction the two chambers are willing to make in the farm and food programs covered by the bill. The House version cuts $35 billion from the 2008 Farm Bill expenditures, while the Senate version eliminates only $23 billion. All three congressional staff members mentioned the proposed Farm Bill has to meet mandated reductions in the federal budget or be subject to further spending cuts.
Members of the audience came prepared with questions, beginning with Powers Lake farmer Marlow Nelson, who wanted to know how the $12 billion difference between the two versions of the bill might impact agriculture production.
Brusegaard said much of the difference could be attributed to changes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) proposed by both sides. “The House is trying to reform that program,” he said. “They want to make sure the money spent is going to people who need it.”
He and Stofferahn also discussed differences in producer wants and needs from various regions of the country, with a definite split seen between northern and southern farmers.
“With the prices in the House bill, it would appear farmers would be planting for the program rather than planting for the market,” Stofferahn said. “That could affect oilseeds, peas and lentils. The Southern producers want very high levels of payment, but you can’t have something that’s completely indefensible in this final bill.”
Kenmare resident Jim Cart, who serves on the Burke County Soil Conservation District board, asked about reductions in conservation program spending. Stofferahn explained the House version of the Farm Bill would eliminate $3 billion in funds now used by the CSC program, while another $6 billion was cut from the Conservation Reserve Program. “It’s been proposed to reduce CRP from 32 million acres down to 25 million acres,” he added.
Stofferahn also referred to the impact of rising prices for commodities in recent years. “There’s been less interest [among producers] in re-enrolling land that’s expiring and more interest to put it into crop production,” he said.
Other questions raised during the session related to the ARC program, possible early expiration of current CRP contracts, the impact of the proposed Farm Bill on the renewable fuel standard, and revisions that may take place in SNAP.
Bowbells area farmer Bryan Ankenbauer’s question about simplifying the farm credit system to encourage beginning farmers brought the most impassioned responses from the panelists.
“We have to have incentives and programs to entice people to come back and farm,” Christman said. “I would expect an effort in the next session of the North Dakota legislature to promote beginning farmer programs.”
“We’re our own worst enemy,” Stofferahn said. “More and more of our land is owned by a trust company or shared by family members who live out of state. I would like to see a land trust program specifically for beginning farmers.”
He told a personal story about his family’s decision to aid a beginning farmer rather than take the highest sale price offered for some crop land, resulting in the young farmer getting his operation established successfully.
“It’s the willingness to say, ‘Let’s not take the top dollar, let’s get somebody started,’ that we need to have,” he said. “We don’t do that enough in North Dakota.”
Even though none of the speakers could predict when a Farm Bill would be passed, all three spoke with confidence that some form of the legislation would get completed. “We produce the highest quality, lowest cost food supply in the world,” Brusegaard said, “and that’s something we want to encourage.”
The House Agriculture Committee approved H.R. 6083, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012, on July 12th by a vote of 35-11. However, as of July 23rd, the bill was not scheduled to be heard by the full House of Representatives for a vote.
Several organizations and websites are tracking progress on the two versions of the bill. Further information about the Senate version of the bill can be found at www.ag.senate.gov/issues/farm-bill, while details about the House version can be seen at agriculture.house.gov/.