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Big Sandy farmer takes reins of MGGA

Two local farmers have been elected leaders of the Montana Grain Growers Association at a time when the association is - once again - weighing in on some potentially controversial farm issues.

The association's board elected Lochiel Edwards of Big Sandy the 2004 president and Jon Stoner of Havre the 2004 treasurer at its December meeting.

Edwards said Thursday the association is focusing on several important state and national farming issues, including two new resolutions the membership has not approved before - recommending a limit on the amount of land a producer can try to place into the Conservation Reserve Program and proposing a new tax structure in Montana.

Edwards' and Stoner's families both have been involved in Montana agriculture for several generations.

Edwards works on land homesteaded by his grandfather Clarence Edwards near Big Sandy in 1911. He has been a member of the association for about 20 years and a member of its board of directors about eight years. As is common in the association, he has risen through the ranks on the board to reach the presidency.

Stoner, whose family moved to the Havre area in the 1970s, has farmed north of Havre about 20 years. His grandfather started farming in eastern Montana around the turn of the century. He has been in the association since the 1980s and has been a director for six years. This is his second year on the executive board.

Edwards said wheat and barley farmers in the state can join the association by paying the yearly $125 in dues.

"Which is too cheap," he added. "You get a lot more out of it."

He said the stance of the Montana Grain Growers Association, which has about 1,800 members and is affiliated with two national organizations, has a precise focus different from some farm organizations.

The association works to change legislation, regulation and administration that impacts farming. Preparation is a very important part, he said.

"We concentrate specifically on those things that impact the business end of farming. We do a lot of homework and policy development," Edwards said. "Like crop insurance. You have to really research that and not make mistakes when you go to Washington."

If a group does enough homework and preparation, it's amazingly easy to cause change, he said. He added that it's easier to get legislation passed than it is to force change in government regulations.

The Montana association generally has been successful in its work, Edwards said, including backing disaster aid in 2002, working to ensure that direct payments were included in the 2002 Farm Bill, and working to improve the structure of crop insurance.

"We didn't get all that we wanted in the disaster bill, but we did get some meaningful aid," he added.

U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said the association has a strong presence in Washington, and works well not just with his office but many offices on Capitol Hill.

"I am grateful to have the expertise of the Montana Grain Growers as I look at agricultural and trade legislation in Washington," Burns said today through a spokesman. "The Grain Growers leaders represent their members well, and I rely on them to help me steer policy decisions in a direction that best benefits Montana growers."

Barrett Kaiser, spokesman for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said Baucus considers the association an important voice in Washington for ag producers. Baucus is proud of the collaborative work he has done with the association on issues like getting disaster aid passed and working to open trade with Cuba, Kaiser said.

The association approved more than 100 resolutions at its December meeting. Some are revisions or repeats of previous resolutions. Some, like limiting CRP, were adopted for the first time.

Stoner said the CRP issue has been raised three times by members of the association, but this is the first year a resolution was passed.

"I think people are getting more and more concerned about the CRP," he said.

Edwards said communities lose when producers put a lot of their land into CRP, in the form of lost sales for agriculture supply businesses and people leaving the area and taking CRP income with them. At the same time, he said, many farmers couldn't survive if they couldn't put some of their land into the program.

The resolution recommends a 25 percent limit on how much of each farm a producer can bid to put into the program. Stoner said there is a 25 percent limit per county now, but the proposal would keep producers from bidding to put entire farms in CRP.

Edwards said a change in focus in the program will probably alter the type of land that's included. The program, originally intended to reduce production, shifted to preventing erosion and now is focusing on creating and preserving wildlife habitat, he said.

The program will be less inclined to take areas that don't have water for animals, he said.

"CRP is going to move out of the prairie and into river bottoms and sloughs," Edwards said.

MGGA has for the first time taken a stance on state tax structure. Edwards said members voted this month to have the executive board make some suggestions at the association's next annual meeting, just before the Legislature convenes in 2005.

"Till this year they didn't want to weigh in on the tax structure," Edwards said. "It's very divisive. But they asked the board to come up with a tax policy at the next meeting."

Edwards added that unless the board comes up with suggestions to offset increases in property taxes and prevent increases in business equipment taxes, he only sees one alternative.

"It will end up with being a sales tax discussion," he said.

Another major issue is getting equitable freight rates for grain in Montana. Edwards said the association is supporting a bill in Congress that would help areas that are underserved or have little competition, like north-central Montana.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which announced an increase in its grain shipping rates this month, is the area's only rail company.

"The newly announced increase in freight rates is of real concern to us," Stoner said.

Edwards said the bill puts areas like north-central Montana "under a microscope, on the part of Congress, to hold the principles of fairness."

The bill is sponsored by Burns and has seven co-sponsors, including Baucus. A related bill in the House was sponsored by Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., and has nine co-sponsors including Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.

"It's got a long haul, but we're optimistic some of it may pass next session and maybe more later," Edwards said.

The association passed a resolution to work on equalizing prices for similar chemicals in the United States and Canada. The association's other major goal on the national level is to enhance crop insurance, Edwards said. The main problems are that the levels producers can insure are based on a rolling average of yields, which has been reduced because of several years of drought in the state, and that the benefits paid because of crop losses have made it harder to get insurance and have driven the prices up.

The problem is convincing the federal Risk Management Agency that insuring a higher yield and making insurance more available is justified and won't be abused, Edwards said.

"As long as we propose changes that don't invite abuse of the program (the risk management agency) will listen to it," he said.

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