Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
The Ag Committee of the U.S. Senate Thursday passed a $280 billion Farm Bill, which will now go before the full Senate for debate and a vote as early as next week. “It’s good for Montana,” said Montana’s U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, a senior member of the Ag Committee. “Given the budget we have, I think we did quite well. We not only kept the safety net, we strengthened it for wheat and barley.” Baucus said Montana farmers, in meetings Baucus held over the last two years, said they believed previous farm bills had helped crops like cotton and corn at the expense of Montana commodities. Some senators, including members of the Ag Committee, have criticized parts of the bill and said they will try to change the bill once it hits the floor of the Senate. (See related story on A2.) Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a Big Sandy farmer, urged the full Senate to support the bill. “This Farm Bill is critical for farmers and ranchers in Montana and across the country,” he said in a press release. “It’s about food security making sure our country can feed itself without having to rely on other countries. It’s about energy security. And it’s about making sure millions of farmers and ranchers continue to be the backbone of America. Montana’s sole congressman, Rep. Denny Rehberg, said he hopes the bill can be completed soon. “I’m glad to see the Senate Ag Committee passed the Farm Bill,” said Rehberg. “I worked with my colleagues in the House to pass legislation to provide a strong safety net for Montana agriculture producers and push forward important programs, such as mandatory COOL. The Senate now needs to take the next step and bring the bill to the floor so we can finish it up and send it to the President’s desk before the end of the year.” During the press conference, Baucus listed several points he added to the bill. One, which he sponsored with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., would prevent closure of several Farm Service Agency offices in the state. “If offices are more than 20 miles apart they can’t be closed,” Baucus said. Another key point for Baucus isn’t in the bill yet, but he expects it to be included in the final version: a $5 billion disaster trust fund that the Senate Finance Committee, which Baucus Chairs, passed last week. “People like it, at least in the Ag Committee,” Baucus said. Another point in the Farm Bill is a plan to ensure implementation of Country Of Origin Labeling by Sept. 30, 2008. COOL, which was originally scheduled to become mandatory in 2004, has been delayed for several years. It will require that the origin of commodities is listed on packages so consumers know where the products they are buying were raised. “I and others want to make sure COOL works and is not pushed back farther,” Baucus said. Baucus said the primary opposition to implementing the program has come from the businesses that pack and distribute the commodities and from stores. Tester, who worked in the Montana Senate to pass a state version of the program, supports the national implementation. “For too long big agri-business has stood in the way of COOL,” Tester said. “It’s about time the federal government steps to the plate so folks know where the food on their dinner table comes from.” Despite many people in the east being critical of the idea, Baucus said, the bill passed from the committee also includes a 7 percent increase for countercyclical payments on wheat and other commodities. In the program, when the price of the commodities drops below a set level, the federal government makes a payment to help make up the difference. “It’s critical for us,” Baucus said. “We depend on the vagaries of price, weather, hail ” Countercyclical payments was one of the issues Tester said had to be in the Farm Bill, as well as something to promote farmers and ranchers producing crops for alternative energy such as biofuels. Baucus said part of the farm bill does that. He sponsored Tester’s amendment to provide federal crop insurance for camelina, a crop being raised more and more in Montana which is used to produce biodiesel. The bill also sets up grants to encourage farmers and ranchers to produce alternative energy. Another part of the bill eliminates a 5 percent surcharge organic farmers had to pay to insure their crops, and the funding for a program set up to encourage young people to get into the business of farming and ranching has been increased in the bill, along with some changes to ensure it is going to full-time farmers and ranchers. “At least 50 percent of their income has to come from agriculture,” Baucus said. The bill also sets up a program that allows state-inspected meat to cross state lines, which would allow smaller packing plants to distribute their meat around the country. Another part of the bill adjusts the conservation stewardship program, which provides incentives for farmers to use conservation practices on land which they are using to raise crops, and increases its funding by $1.28 million over five years. Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.