By Tim Leeds
Adoption of a farm aid bill is going into the final stretches, and local representatives of farm organizations have had a hand in the debate.
At the request of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., three local ag producers came up with items they'd like to see in the farm bill. The three are Larry Barbie, who farms out of Joplin and is the president of the Montana Grain Growers Association; Greg Woods, who also farms near Joplin, and is president of the Montana Farm Bureau in Hill, Liberty and Blaine counties; and Daryl Sather, who farms north of Havre and is the legislative representative of the Cottonwood Farmers Union local.
Sather said the idea was to come to a consensus on what the different organizations wanted to see in farm aid.
"It's pretty obvious that different groups have different concerns, but we're only going to have one bill," he said. "We were trying to come to common ground."
Woods said the three were trying to present a unified front on ag needs in north-central Montana. The Farm Bureau has been working on doing that on a national level, too, he said.
"It's just a method of forming some alliances," Woods said.
Bill Lombardi of Baucus' staff said Baucus saw problems the drought is causing for Montanans when he came through the state last summer, and asked people from different areas of Montana to give him ideas about what they wanted in the bill.
Baucus and U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., were successful in attaching $2.4 billion in disaster relief $1.9 billion for crops and $500 million for livestock to the farm bill the Senate passed Feb. 13.
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said it will be difficult to keep that aid in the bill during the debate by the conference committee that will reconcile differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill. But he is forming alliances with other representatives from states affected by the drought to try to keep the aid in, he said.
"That's a big win for us if it comes through," Woods said. "It would help our economy a lot."
Sather said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks pre-empted the discussion of the farm aid bill for a while, and he thinks that was the right thing to do. He was in Washington, D.C., when the attacks occurred.
But it's time to get back to the farm agenda. The needs of farmers are real, he said.
"We don't want to preempt terrorism, but this is a real disaster too," Sather said.
Some of the concerns the three men talked about have been taken care of in the Senate version of the bill, while others could still be addressed by the conference committee.
"Hopefully they can work on them in the conference committee," Barbie said. The Grain Growers Association "supports the House side more than the Senate side. We didn't want the farm bill to get killed in the Senate. We want it to move along and we can work on it."
One part of the Senate bill the amendment by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., that links Conservation Reserve Program contracts to assigning water rights to the federal government to protect animals that are endangered, threatened or sensitive was included but doesn't affect Montana. The amendment only would apply to seven states.
Barbie said he still opposes the amendment, because it could be expanded later to include Montana.
"That's real controversial for Montana," he said. "Why would somebody want to give up their water rights? We discourage giving up any water rights."
Another sore point that made it into the Senate bill is an amendment by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would limit the amount of aid to ag producers from the federal government to $275,000. The House version of the bill sets the cap at $550,000.
Woods said the $275,000 limit would hurt farms run by large families.
"I guess we feel it kind of defeats the purpose of family-owned farms," he said. "Corporations don't grow the food and fiber of this country."
Barbie said CRP was probably the top concern the three agreed on. They believe it has negative effects on young farmers who want to buy land, and costs the economy, schools and agribusiness money.
Woods said they agreed that there shouldn't be any expansion of the program, and the amount of each farm that can be placed into CRP should be limited to 25 percent.
Sather said the land placed in CRP should be the worst ground, not the best ground. The program was created to prevent soil erosion, paying subsidies to plant grass and erosion-preventing shrubs and trees on highly erodable land. That's not the land being placed in the program now, he said.
"We need to get back to the 25 percent of the farm for erosion control like originally planned," he said.
Burns tried to attach amendments limiting the maximum amount placed in CRP to 50 percent and establish a scale for payments, with higher payments going for more erodable land, giving incentive to farmers to put poor land into CRP and to keep farming good land. That amendment wasn't included in the bill, but J.P. Morgan of Burns' office said the Senate is commissioning a study to find what effects CRP has on rural communities.
One point the three agreed on made it into both the House and Senate bills. Contracyclical payments, in which aid increases if the selling price of products drops, is included in both versions.
Common goals of the three was to get more local control of programs, and more up-to-date handling of programs. An example Sather used is the records of crop yields in the county. The records are quite outdated, which makes it difficult to present estimates to the bank when applying for a loan, he said.
Greater local control, which isn't included in either version of the bill, would make things much faster and easier for producers, Sather said. Even in the third year of a drought, producers had to wait for federal approval to use emergency grazing on CRP land. Issues could be dealt with much more efficiently locally, he said.
"(The programs are) regionalized from the federal government," he said. "In my opinion they should be run by local offices. It seems upside down."
"I'm pretty concerned about that and work pretty hard to make the grass-roots voice heard," he said.
While this year's farm bill may be close to its final stages, Sather said the groups he and Woods and Barbie represent have some long-range goals, like changing CRP, contracyclical payments, more equitable rates for different crops, and better crop insurance, that could help farmers years down the road.
A farm aid program that emphasizes rotating crops, diversification and gives a better safety net would help farmers, he said.
A farm bill would be good "if it would give us the opportunity to be production-based instead of subsidized so the management of the farm is for (production,)" he said. "You manage the farm and if you make it, it's because you're a good manager."