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ND ag leaders gather as farm bill nears passage

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., met with farmers and farm leaders at the NDSU Carrington Extension Research Center Friday to talk about the Senate version of the farm bill and concerns with loss of foreign markets due to tariffs. Keith Norman / Forum News Service

CARRINGTON, N.D.—Work by a conference committee on versions of the farm bill passed by the Senate and House of Representatives could produce a final bill as early as August or September, according to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

The bill won't deal with the biggest concern of the farmers and ag leaders gathered at a roundtable discussion at the North Dakota State University Carrington Extension Research Center.

"The farm bill doesn't have the solution (to the tariff issue)," Heitkamp said. "It deals with weather and low prices, but it doesn't protect agriculture from a trade war."

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and challenger for Heitkamp's Senate seat, said in a statement Friday, "I have spoken out against the use of tariffs as a good long-term tool for our agriculture producers and manufacturers. I commend the President for instructing the USDA to give our farmers a safety net during this short-term uncertainty. I stay committed to working closely with the Administration on fixing the bigger problem posed by China."

Doyle Lentz, chairman of the North Dakota Barley Council, said he feared the tariffs would cause long-term harm to America's position as a provider of food for the world.

"You've got guys running around saying this will go away and we'll be back to where we were," he said. "I challenge them that even if we do, we've lost the confidence of our customers. When we become that second or third choice, that's never a good situation to be in."

Lentz said it had taken decades and millions of dollars in investments by commodity groups to build trade relations with foreign buyers that may be gone in a short period of time.

Heitkamp said a mitigation plan to cover some of the losses farmers are facing is under discussion.

"Call any payment a mitigation," she said. "Because now, American agriculture is subsidizing the trade war."

The form of any mitigation program has not been determined. Heitkamp said that has caused some concern for farmers.

"I had a producer in Mandan tell me, 'Don't think you'll make me whole with a loan, I don't need more debt,'" she said.

Heitkamp said a mitigation program might be put in place before the November midterm elections.

"My preference is to keep the markets rather than pay out subsidies," she said.

Justin Sherlock, a Dazey area farmer and advocate for young farmers, said many farmers had sold part of this year's crop on contract in order to lock in a break-even price. Bankers sometimes require this as a condition of getting an operating loan for the year, he said.

"What about next year," he said, referring to securing next year's operating loans. "Going into next year, a lot of young farmers won't survive."

Heitkamp said she did not know how soon the tariff issue could be resolved.

"Right now, the bull's-eye is on agriculture because China thinks this is the maximum effect," she said, referring to the strong backing President Donald Trump received from farm states in the past election.

While concern for loss of markets due to the tariffs continues, the new farm bill was considered positive for North Dakota agriculture by those attending the meeting.

Heitkamp said the Senate version of the farm bill retained a strong crop insurance program and made some minor changes to some farm programs. It also increased funding for new and beginning farmers and increased loan limits in some programs. It does not include a provision to allow USDA marketing programs be used for exports to Cuba that Heitkamp had backed.

"I don't see a lot of controversy on the ag programs but on SNAP," Heitkamp said, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides assistance for food purchases to low-income people.

SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, has always been funded through the farm bill. The House version of the farm bill places a work requirement on SNAP recipients, while the Senate version does not.

In recent years, farm bills have been considered every five years and serve as the guidelines for farm and nutritional programs in the United States. The current farm bill expires at the end of September.