House ag leaders meet in Sioux Falls

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, shared a bit of the political spotlight with colleague Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., who hosted the last in a second flight of 2012 farm bill he...

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, shared a bit of the political spotlight with colleague Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., who hosted the last in a second flight of 2012 farm bill hearings here Tuesday.

A dozen House committee members were at Augustana College for the two-hour-plus hearing that drew some 175 people, including panels of corn, soy and wheat producers, general farm organizations and agri-energy heavy hitters.

Herseth Sandlin, elected in a special election in 2004, is the ninth-ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee. She is in a relatively tight race with Republican challengers who are vying for the nomination in the June 8 primary.

Committee hearings on the next farm bill so far have been held in Iowa, Idaho, California, Wyoming, Georgia, Alabama and Texas. One more hearing is scheduled in North Carolina in June, but Peterson said he'll hold off after that until after elections.

The series involves packing up nine committee staffers on a government plane and moving them among the locations, where various members sit in. For the first time, the committee offered live Internet streaming Tuesday.


Peterson said the current farm program seems relatively popular but he wants to make sure the programs work together. "My personal opinion is that we've kind of added (programs) on top of programs, and I don't think they work as well as they could or should."

Some of the important discussions Tuesday involved whether and how to tweak programs enacted in the 2008 farm bill.

'Acre shifting?'

The panels included speakers from Minnesota and South Dakota, but none from North Dakota.

Gary Duffy, a diversified crop and livestock producer from Oldham, S.D., president of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, described crop insurance as "the greatest risk management tool producers have," and especially revenue-based programs.

He said the Average Crop Revenue Election program had provided help while cutting direct payments and lowering loan deficiency payments.

But Duffy said ACRE was relatively complex and poses "real challenges" for farmers to decide whether to enroll. He also said the program should be county- or farm-based, citing the dramatic difference in rainfall between places even within Kingsbury County.

Peterson said only 10 percent of North Dakota's farmers participated in ACRE, while in South Dakota only 18 percent had. He implied that he is looking at potential changes but also that changes would depend on costs, yet to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office.


Peterson said he had one county in his district -- Stevens County -- where 80 percent of the eligible acres were covered by ACRE. He said he thinks time might help boost participation elsewhere as people "see what happens."

Scott VanderWal, a Volga, S.D., farmer and president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau, was one of the few to talk about fiscal control. He said his group's analysis of making the ACRE program county-based, for example, might make it cost-prohibitive.

VanderWal said his group would accept shifts of commodity program funding to crop insurance, where individual responsibility plays a part.

He said the SURE program must change to speed payments. "A producer who is in danger of going out of business due to some sort of a disaster most likely does not have the financial ability to wait a year or more for that assistance," he said.

Steve Masat of Redfield, S.D., president of South Dakota Wheat Inc., and a diversified farmer, said the National Association of Wheat Growers said crop insurance covered 92 percent of South Dakota's wheat in 2009. He said in northern South Dakota and parts of North Dakota there is increased interest in winter wheat because of yield, crop rotation and wildlife benefits.

"Unfortunately, crop insurance in northern South Dakota and North Dakota does not provide winter kill coverage for winter wheat," he said. His group is working with USDA's Risk Management Agency and others to develop criteria and coverage.

Peterson said he thinks this kind of program is getting strong consideration in the 2012 bill.

Ethanol proponents


The hearing was a fact-gathering exercise on current policies, there was no testimony against expanding the ethanol industry, an industry that has drawn criticism from some environmentalists and others.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and the ranking minority member on the committee, got few clear answers when he asked how long panelists thought it would be before ethanol could stand on its own, without subsidies. While some suggested that could be 10 to 15 years away, the current emphasis is on keeping or expanding government supports.

David Hallberg, chief executive officer of PRIME BioSolutions said the ethanol industry has expanded effectively only in years when the federal government has enacted stimulus policies.

"What you and your colleagues are doing here today will ultimately have a substantial -- if not defining -- impact on the future of the domestic biofuels industry, and on the nation's campaign to significantly reduce, and one day eliminate, it's costly dependence upon imported oil," Hallberg said.

The House Agriculture Committee invites members of the public to visit the committee's website and share thoughts about the future of farm and food policy. Submit comments on the website by June 14 to be considered in the field hearing record: .

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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