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Delegation hasnt given up on disaster aid for farmers


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Much of the compromise farm bill announced Friday has received praise from Montana agriculture groups, although elimination of some components, particularly disaster relief, has raised concerns.

"Disaster relief is out no survival there, unfortunately," Lori Cox of the Montana Grain Growers Association said today.

Beth Emter of the Montana Stockgrowers Association said the decision by members of the House and Senate conference committee to drop disaster aid from the bill is a serious blow.

"That is a bad deal," she said. "We are extremely discouraged that that was taken out of there. Obviously, in the fourth year of a drought, we're counting on that funding."

But the decision to drop the $2.4 billion of disaster relief, attached to the Senate version of the bill by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is not too surprising, Cox said.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest, R-Texas, worked extremely hard for more than two years crafting the House version of the farm bill, Cox said, and the Senate put its version together rather quickly.

"(Combest) just didn't want to change direction, and wanted to stay within budget," she said.

That doesn't mean that Combest will oppose disaster aid if it's attached to another bill, she said.

The Stockgrowers Association is hopeful about efforts by Rep. Denny Rehberg, and Sen. Conrad Burns, both R-Mont., to create a bipartisan coalition to find some other way to approve disaster funding, Emter said.

"While the farm bill is complete, our efforts to secure disaster relief are continuing and we will not rest until all legislative means available have been exhausted," Rehberg said in a press release.

Emter said Montana's congressional delegation has done a good job in presenting the problems faced by Montana's ag producers.

"I think Washington has gotten the message loud and clear of the drought situation out west," she said.

The Grain Growers Association also is confident Montana's delegation can still get disaster relief approved.

"We firmly believe that, with all our hope and all of our trust, those guys will make it happen," she said.

In a release, Baucus said he will continue to look for ways to pass the disaster relief.

"I can't for the life of me understand why some House conferees didn't support the ag disaster funding when the Senate passed my amendment with 69 votes," he said. "But I'm sure not giving up."

Baucus failed in attempts to approve ag disaster relief in other bills last year and this year.

Adrian Doucette, branch manager of Heritage Bank in Havre, said the effect on producers of not receiving disaster aid is difficult to predict and depends on each person's situation.

"Theres a huge variation," he said.

But the effect would not be good.

"I would say it would have a significant effect," Doucette said. "It's going to make showing cash flow this year more difficult."

The Stockgrowers Association is pleased with some parts of the compromise farm bill, although the questions about what it includes and doesn't remain unanswered.

Emter said the association is pleased that country-of-origin labeling was included. Voluntary labeling continues in the bill, with mandatory labeling starting at the end of 2003. Negotiations are ongoing to determine how tracing the origin of items back to local operations will be done, she said.

The Stockgrowers hoped the bill would include a provision prohibiting packing house ownership of livestock, preventing a single business owning the livestock from birth through butchering, Emter said. That provision was taken out of the bill, but Emter said the Stockgrowers organization is pleased that both House and Senate conference committee members pledged to hold hearings around the country to look into the issue.

"We don't look on that as a total loss," she said.

The Grain Growers Association said last week that it likes some provisions in the bill, including higher loan rates, optional updates on value and yield information and a compromise on the limitation of federal payments to ag operations. The Senate version limited payments to $550,000 a year and the House version to $275,000. Cox said the compromise version limits total payments to about $360,000.

How the committee resolved an amendment by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., was still unknown by either organization.

The Reid amendment ties some Conservation Reserve Program payments to federal acquisition of water rights from farmers to protect endangered, threatened and sensitive species. The original version of the amendment applied to all 50 states, but the final version affected only seven and excluded Montana.

The Stockgrowers Association said allowing the amendment to affect even seven states sets a dangerous precedent.


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