By Ron VandenBoom
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus told a crowd of about 50 people this morning that he is hearing a lot of complaints about the Conservation Resources Program as he visits with agricultural producers during his current visit to the Hi-Line.
CRP allows farmers to set aside farm land for conservation and receive payment for crops not produced on that land. The lack of demand for farm equipment, seed, and other farm supplies has hurt communities that depend on farm-related income to survive.
"People are really upset," Baucus said.
Baucus said he is gathering information that he will consider when a new farm bill comes before Congress next year.
"Farmers need a payment floor or safety net so they know they're not going to go belly-up," he said, adding that it's important that Montana is able to write its own version of the farm bill.
Baucus told the crowd Montanans don't like partnerships, but he believes there is a real need to get agricultural-related groups working together. He said he would like to be able to get all the farm groups in the same room, lock the door, and put the key in his pocket.
The recent economic summit in Great Falls, Baucus said, produced several positive results, including discussions about Montana's infrastructure and education, but he emphasized follow-up is important.
He described the outcome as practical, pragmatic and inclusive.
One of the issues Baucus said is important to him in Congress is health care, including prescription drug coverage for Montana's seniors.
"Americans pay more than any other people in the world for prescription drugs," he said. "That's atrocious."
Baucus pointed out that Montana ranks last in the nation in the number of companies that provide health insurance for employees, and he tied health insurance to economic development.
State Sen. Jon Tester of Big Sandy, a fellow Democrat, asked Baucus whether it was likely some kind of a low-interest loan program could be developed that would assist in keeping young people in farming. He noted that the most common way for the young to acquire a farm is to inherit one.
Baucus said there are many aspects to the problem, adding that CRP also plays into the mix. He said one possible answer would be some type of a revolving loan program.
Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., asked Baucus to help support the federal Economic Development Administration, which is in danger of a $75 million cut.
Baucus said he supports the EDA and continued funding.
Alex Capdeville, chancellor of MSU-Northern, asked for continued support of the MSU-Northern Applied Technology Center that Capdeville hopes will attract greater interest from General Electric and other major companies.
Baucus also received a suggestion from former Democratic Rep. Ray Peck of Havre to consider organizing a economic development summit just for Montanans who hold patents, but do not have the expertise in marketing to turn their ideas into dollars.
At a 10:30 a.m. public session at MSU-Northern, Baucus heard more complaints about CRP from the crowd of about 60 agricultural producers and others.
Baucus asked whether the CRP formula should be changed in a way that would pay farmers less money if they put productive land in CRP and more money if they put poor land in the program.
Mike Zook, director of the local federal Farm Service Agency office, told Baucus that 24.5 percent of Hill County is currently in CRP.
"Hill County has more land in CRP than 26 other states," he said, adding that the story would be similar all along the Hi-Line. He expressed concern that changing the formula now would only anger those farmers who had entered a 10-year contract.
Baucus's responded, "There is always a way to skin a cat."
Another suggestion offered by the audience was that farmers not be allowed to put their entire farm in CRP.
Republican Rep. Merlin Wolery of Rudyard said he thought no more than 20 percent of any farm should be allowed in CRP, thus keeping people on and working their farms.
According to Tester, CRP is only part of the problem. The other issue is the price farmers get.
"If you address the problem of price, then you address the problem of CRP," Tester told Baucus.
Other farm issues brought to Baucus' attention were a need for better insurance coverage that provides farmers with better than 75 percent coverage when producers change crops.
Better loan rates and government action to help compete with international competition were also suggested.