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'A safety net for rural America': Minn., N.D. reps hear from farmers on aid, new farm bill

U.S. Reps. Rick Nolan, left, and Tim Walz of Minnesota talk Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, during a U.S. House Agriculture Committee listeniing session at Farmfest. Don Davis / Forum News Service

REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. — Two members of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee have especially strong feelings about the need to aid farmers and ranchers during disasters because their states are in an extreme drought.

U.S. Reps. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, both Republicans, sat with nine colleagues as farmers and agri-business leaders from the region testified Thursday, Aug. 3, about what should be in new federal farm legislation. Many mentioned disasters, such as major crop and livestock losses.

Years ago, the representatives would have been forced to fight for a stand-alone bill to get federal funds to help their constituents. In the past several years, however, disaster aid has been folded into the so-called farm bill.

That means the battle is to retain disaster relief as Congress examines what to include in new farm legislation, and tweak some things that may not be working.

"We are grateful we had a permanent disaster program in the last farm bill," Noem said.

A program to help livestock producers has been combined with federal approval to feed grass from Conservation Reserve Program land, which normally is not allowed to be fed to livestock.

Cramer said that grass in CRP land may not have as much nutrition as hay grown as feed, but it is better than nothing. And much of the grazing land in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana has dried up.

A Thursday report indicates that North Dakota and South Dakota drought conditions have remained about the same for the past week. About 80 percent of each state remains in some extent of drought.

Cramer said that one problem is that there is no federal help to transport hay to where it is needed, so that is a potential tweak.

As a new farm bill is written, anything could change. But U.S. Rep.Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he thinks the farm bill will include the disaster provisions.

The $10 billion Republican leaders want to cut from the bill probably will come from a nutrition program for the poor, formally known as food stamps, said Peterson, the top-ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.

After a committee listening session Thursday at Farmfest, a southwestern Minnesota agriculture event, Peterson said: "The No. 1 thing I heard was how important crop insurance was."

The program allows farmers to buy insurance to help them financially in case of a crop failure,such as when bad weather strikes.

Farmer after farmer at the committee meeting testified that the insurance does not allow them to make a profit after a crop failure, but it allows them to remain in business for another year.

"The farm bill probably is the most important piece of legislation, not just for farmers, but it is a safety net for rural America," President Gary Wertish of the Minnesota Farmers' Union testified.

Noah Hultgren of Willmar, representing the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said crop insurance is especially important for young farmers who have not built much equity, but it is important to everyone."If we didn't have crop insurance, we would not be able to survive."

With crop insurance and livestock assistance in place, Peterson said one of the major needs in a new farm bill is to help dairy farmers. Past disaster-relief program have not worked well, and he suggested writing a new one for dairy farmers with 250 or fewer cows.

Noem has an idea to help out in a drought or a large range fire.

She has legislation would allow people to donate hay harvested on CRP: land to livestock producers who suffer a severe drought or fire.

"There's just no reason that feed should be wasted," Noem said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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