By Ron VandenBoom
Area farmers and ranchers might wish lawmakers could legislate for more rain, but only SJ 6 a joint resolution that would suggest low cost energy rates for irrigators comes close to achieving the desired result. And while energy costs are scheduled to go through the ceiling in June 2002, the chances that this bill will accomplish the goal seem slim.
However several bills that will impact agriculture, and not be subject to rising energy prices, do stand a chance of passing the 57th legislature.
SB 245 is one piece of legislation that this session has received a lot of media coverage, but, according to area legislators, is less than it appears and will not help the average Montana farmer.
The bill would allow for some farmers and ranchers to deposit $20,000 or 20 percent of the depositor's income from their agricultural business into a tax-free account that could be kept for five years and theoretically be used during hard times to invest back into the business.
Sens. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, and Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, and Rep. Merlin Wolery, R-Rudyard, all find this piece of legislation flawed citing numerous qualifications that have been attached to the bill that would exclude the very people it was intended to help.
"I was a fine idea," Wolery said. "But it only applies to those with old money people who are financially secure and don't have to borrow money from a bank."
Tester said the bill would only apply to 2-5 percent of the people in agriculture and Jergeson said the measure ought to be labeled as false advertising.
"It's fundamentally a bad bill because it doesn't help the farmer that is struggling...," Jergeson said, adding that the bill could also cost as much as $1.2 million by 2003.
Tester is sponsoring a country of origin labeling bill, SB 196, that would require a placard on specific commodities offered for sale in Montana.
The bill would allow Montana shoppers to identify made in Montana agricultural products when they shop for grains, honey, beef, pork, poultry, or lamb. The bill also calls for the labeling of imported commodities. Restaurants, however, will be exempt from the bill.
A hearing on Tester's bill was scheduled for Tuesday, March 13 and there is no word at press time whether the bill passed muster.
Tester praises the bill as not only being good for Montana producers, but for also giving consumers the knowledge that they are buying a quality made at home product while supporting Montana's economy.
The Northern Agricultural Research Center (NARC) south of Havre is also slated to receive some funding this session for long-range building. But, like many funding projects this session, the $1.163 million price tag in HB 291, places it in the "unlikely to be granted" category.
"It's just a matter of money being hard to come by," Tester said.
Tester said he believes they are moving on trying to get a $1 million bond for the center that will accomplish the same thing. It's a prospect he and Jergeson agreed would be more likely than passage of the $6.25 million appropriation asked for to fund all the state's research centers listed in HB 291.
Jergeson also mentioned that another bill, HB 368, will allow the center to apply for grant money for agricultural bioscience.
The fund, he said, was in the amount of $200,000 and NARC, with a match, would be entitled to a chunk of those funds.
Wolery, a north Rudyard farmer, has introduced JR 13 a resolution that would ask the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress to harmonize pesticide regulations between Canada and the United States.
The problem, Wolery said, is that pesticides used in Canada, and that sell for as much as 25 percent less than their counterparts in the United States, cannot legally be brought into the United States and used by area farmers.
Wolery said there are 10 to 12 chemicals that fall into this category many having the same names and the same chemical composition as pesticides used on this side of the border.
Roundup and Achieve are two such examples, Wolery said.
The only reason one of the chemicals can't be imported is because it doesn't have a Spanish language label on the container, he said.
Wolery said he feels this violates not only common sense, but the spirit of the North American Free Trade Agreement and places American farmers at a distinct disadvantage when competing head to head with Canadian farmers in the world market.
The resolution has no teeth in it and can't force the federal government to do anything, but with a new Republican president in the White House, Wolery said he believes this might be a good time to prod the government in Washington and the Environmental Protection Agency into committing more resources toward the support and review of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Wolery said he worked hard this session to kill a piece of legislation that would have placed a moratorium on the use of genetically modified wheat, or GMOs, in Montana.
Wolery said he felt that the bill sent the wrong message to the industry, that Montana is closed for business when it comes to GMOs.
This is especially true at a time when the industry has assured us they will not be ready for production of GMOs for at least three years.
Tester tabled his own resolution, SJ 7, that would have conducted a market study to determine the advantages or disadvantages of producing GMO crops in Montana, but HJ 6, by Rep Bruce Waddill, R-Florence, will create a committee to study the impacts and effects of GMOs on agriculture over the biennium.
Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, listed HB 529 as a bill he felt would be noticed by farmers, but would probably not have a dramatic financial impact on the industry.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Pattison, R-Glasgow, would revise existing law governing overweight vehicle tolerance standards to allow farm trucks carrying grain to be up to 10 percent over weight if they are traveling within 100 miles of the harvested field without incurring penalties.
Musgrove said the current law allows trucks to only exceed the limit by seven percent at a radius of 40 miles from the harvested field.
Garbage trucks have been allowed a 10 percent limit for some time and all this does is make grain trucks equal with garbage trucks, Musgrove said.