MSGA participates in Farm Bill Listening Tour
About twenty people gathered at the Ullman Center at Dawson Community College at ten o’clock Friday, May 26, to take part in Senator Jon Tester’s Farm Bill Listening Tour. Beginning with the pledge of allegiance led by Tester, the session was led by the Senator and seven other panelists from various public and private agricultural agencies in Montana.
Taking part in the session were Ben Thomas of the MontanaDepartment of Agriculture, Kurt Voss and Justin Loch of MontanaFarmer’s Union, Scott Flynn of the American sugar beet Grower’s Association, Steve Pust of the Montana-Dakota Beef Grower’s Association, Fred Wacker of the Montana Stock Grower’s Association, Don Steinbeisser, Jr. of the Montana Farm Bureau, and Senator Jon Tester (D).
After some words of gratefulness to Dawson Community College for the use of their facility, Tester explained that the purpose of the meeting was to receive feedback from panelists and the audience regarding the upcoming farm bill, and proposed slashes to agriculture funding by President Trump and possible responses from both the House and the Senate. Currently, Trump has proposed total reductions of 228 billion from the Department of Agriculture over the next decade. Cuts include reductions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the removal of billions from farm subsidies, and a twenty-one percent deduction to USDA discretionary spending. Panelists spoke primarily of how various agricultural programs are beneficial to Montana farmers and ranchers, and gave feedback on the possible ills of reducing federal handouts to the state.
Kurt Voss of the Montana Farmer’s Union spoke first, saying, “Most producers would like a chance to update base acres if possible, but we would be pleased if crop production remained where it is.” Voss explained that the CRP – the Conservation Reserve Program – is at about 24 million acres and has remained steady, claiming that the number works for Montanans.
Justin Loch, also of the Montana Farmer’s Union, shared various concerns as well, saying, “One of the things we need help with in the farm bill is that our farmers need to have their payments [from federal programs] in a more timely fashion, because they have loans and expenses to take care of and are sometimes paid a year later.”
Loch asserted that educating politicians in Washington is important, saying, “One of the big things is when we work with congressmen back in D.C., we need to educate them to understand what it takes financially to keep our farms going. Most of them are not from rural areas and just don’t know the cost.”
Loch suggested an education tool called “Farmer’s Share,” which explains the profit received by the farmer per price of unit of the production. This might help, according to Loch, urban legislators grasp that the price for a product in a grocery store doesn’t necessarily equate to farm profit.
Finally, Loch suggested to Senator Tester that there be a way to help up-and-coming farmers who may need to secure funding but don’t have a track record to demonstrate their ability to farm successfully, asserting, “For beginning farmers and ranchers we need to figure out a way so that we can support them if they don’t have a production history.”
Tester asked Loch for clarification regarding how new farmers secure resources without a production history, and Loch noted that it was a complicated process that perhaps could be alleviated by different regulation.
Ben Thomas of the Montana Department of Agriculture further explained, “The budget from the [Trump] Administration cuts out resources that may be needed for research and other industries. It’s one of the largest grant programs in our department and it would be a real loss to see it go away.”
Thomas claimed, “The Market Access Program is also zeroed out in the last budget proposal. The EU spends much more.” Thomas went on to relay his discovery that in Japanese supermarkets, beef is promoted as being Japanese, American or Australian and that the United States is not marketing it the same way. Aggressively competing in foreign markets is something that Thomas says Americans should do.
“We should rather be doubling or tripling the Market Access Program,” according to Thomas, “to make our products more accessible and desirable in foreign markets. Those funds help our wheat offices and other kinds of offices overseas, for about 30 different industries.”
Thomas also focused on a topic that several on the panel would go on to iterate, “Crop insurance is the basis of risk management, and we should oppose cuts to crop insurance.”
Steve Pust seconded that notion, adding, “Crop insurance seems to be extremely important for our young producers, especially for sugar production in this valley, who may not be as financially secure.”
Tester questioned the panelists, asking, “And crop insurance for beets now works?”
Pust confirmed, “We don’t feel we need a boost in coverage, but we need it to remain to help our younger guys. It’s important for young producers on renewals to have the ability to say ‘I have something to catch me before the bottom falls out,’ and will help them invest in agriculture.”
Pust also agreed with the assertion from Thomas regarding international competition, adding, “We want to make sure our trade agreements are enforceable and think that we should deal on a fair and equitable basis, even in our competition with other nations. We want to be on equal footing.”
Scott Flynn of the American sugar beet Grower’s Association gave his thoughts, “Our sugar policy is a government program that works. No changes are needed, and we are happy with what we have. That isn’t something that you can ordinarily say about government policy.”
“The sugar industry provides jobs to 140 thousand American workers,” Flynn continued, “that provides supplies at a reasonable price. We are the world’s third largest importer of sugar and we can’t produce all that we need.”
Flynn also spoke of the importance of continued accessibility of loan programs.
“Loans from the Commodity Credit Corporation is an important program because it helps bridge the gap between the production expense and the final sale of the sugar,” Flynn stated. “Our sugar policy should help protect us from unfair practices, like Mexico dumping sugar. Mexico dumping sugar at subsidized prices is allowing them to sell it cheaper here than they sell it in their own country, which is an attempt to hurt our industry. So while it seems good for the consumer, it is designed to hurt us in the long run.”
Fred Wacker of the Montana Stock Grower’s Association told the audience, “Most of our cattle people are also farm people, and so the Stock Grower’s Association is very interested in the farm bill.”
According to Wacker, a program called the Environmental Quality Encentives Program (EQUIP) is important and should be continued in spite of possible budget cuts. Wacker said, “The EQUIP program helps Farmers and Ranchers protect our resources. It allows us to provide water to our cattle without tearing up our resources. We would certainly encourage Congress to not do any cutting to that program.”
Wacker went on, “The disaster program also is a very good thing. South Dakota went through the storm of all storms, and that program worked very well. There are two major problems, however. First, the value of the animals has not been raised as the price has gone up, which currently stand at one thousand dollars per head, five hundred to one thousand dollars below the actual value, and secondly, the program is geared for smaller ranchers and smaller cattle feeders. Larger feeders are not eligible to receive those funds, because your eligibility is linked to your gross income.”
“We need stricter controls on beef coming into the country, which may be diseased. Furthermore, we think more funding from the USDA budget should go to state agencies because they are local and more connected,” Wacker noted.
“We need support from you, Senator Tester,” Wacker said while looking at the senator, “regarding Department of Transporation policy. They’re going to mandate electronic logs, and that is going to kill us on freight and red tape. You will have to unload and reload animals every day they’re in transit. It is a serious issue. Perhaps one solution that can help is to specify that for agriculture commodities carrying perishable items, they need exemptions.”
Tester noted that he was working on such an initiative, and said that it was also an education issue, as people in Washington may not understand that agricultural products are perishable and should be treated differently.
An audience member spoke up to suggest that animal welfare should also be addressed, because not getting animals directly to their new location as quickly as possible has adverse effects upon their well being, something with which some in Washington may sympathize.
Don Steinbeisser, Jr. of the Montana Farm Bureau also gave his concerns, “The first thing we want to do is protect farm bill spending. We also need money for rural development and more efficiency in grant approval and timely applications.” Steinbeisser went on to express the need for agricultural funding to not be cut because of the essential nature of help it provides to Montana farmers.
Tester reiterated the need for responsible distribution of federal funds to Montana‘s agriculture, in spite of likely cuts in the upcoming budget.