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PRAIRIE VOICES: Mr. Johnson goes to Washington

Q. You've been in Washington for almost four months now. Has it been much of a personal adjustment? A. I think people can relate to this: The No. 1 change is the weather. I'd take a North Dakota winter over a D.C. summer any day. I walk five bloc...

Roger Johnson
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson says everywhere you look in Washington, D.C., it's building, concrete and pavement. "There's noise. It's just different in Washington than in a North Dakota 'big city,' if you will. It seems like you never have the chance to enjoy the blue sky because of all of the concrete and the heat. (Mikkel Pates)

Q. You've been in Washington for almost four months now. Has it been much of a personal adjustment?

A. I think people can relate to this: The No. 1 change is the weather. I'd take a North Dakota winter over a D.C. summer any day.

I walk five blocks to the office, and you get to work sweating.

We live in a temporary apartment about five blocks from the office. It's about 600 square feet, and it's $2,350 a month. I'm usually at the office by 7:30 a.m., and -- until recently, when Jeff Knudson started with us -- I'd often be the first one.

The second big change is the congestion. Everywhere you look it's building, concrete and pavement. There's noise. It's just different in Washington than in a North Dakota "big city," if you will. It seems like you never have the chance to enjoy the blue sky because of all of the concrete and the heat.

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I knew these two things were going to be the down side of the job. I keep telling people it's just like with farming: No matter what the job is, sometimes you have to clean the barn.

Q. Are you getting back to North Dakota at all? Any other travel?

A. I was in Bismarck for a big climate change conference last week. A few weeks ago, we were in Copenhagen (Denmark) for a conference on climate change.

Q. What is the upside of being in Washington?

A. It's kind of where the action is on things related to farm policy. You just have a much larger chance of impacting what's going to happen when you have access to people who make the decisions.

Q. Would you give President Barack Obama's agriculture department a grade for implementing the farm bill?

A. I don't know if I'd give them a grade. It's hard because the farm bill beginnings and ends don't usually coincide with election cycles. Farm bills usually go for five years, while election cycles are four.

I know that when the new administration came in, one of the first things it did in agriculture was pull the people writing the rules and regs for hundreds of provisions and reprioritize them. On the disaster program, for example, nothing had been done until this administration came in. Largely the same thing was true for the renewable energy provisions. Both of those moved way up on the priority list.

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Q. What other issues are coming up?

A. The one we're spending most of our time on right now is climate change. The stakes are enormously high for agriculture on that issue.

We've also spent a fair amount of time working on the 2008 farm bill implementation. We're following the permanent disaster program interstate meat shipment, the livestock indemnity programs, COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) -- all of those things that now are moving to the implementation process.

We've been spending a fair amount of time on the dairy crisis. I'd say that's the "point of the spear," if you will (for financial problems). The hog guys are in the same shape. Ethanol is struggling.

Q. What is Farmers Union's role on climate change legislation?

A. Of course, the Waxman-Markey bill (HR2454) has been passed in the House. The two big committees with jurisdiction were Agriculture and Ways and Means, so we've been in the middle of it.

We've made it very clear from the beginning that Farmers Union supports a national cap- and-trade situation, but with a number of conditions attached to it. We've outlined those repeatedly, and it's mainly dealing with agricultural "offsets."

Agriculture should not be under a "capped" sector. We feel agriculture and forestry offsets need to be "permitted" under the bill, and we want the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be in charge of that. And no artificial limitation should be placed on the number of offsets you're allowed to enter the cap-and-trade mechanism.

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Also, we want science to dictate how offsets should be used and qualified, or verified. We've made it very clear that we think -- as a country -- we're better off passing a cap-and-trade system than letting the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate us to lower greenhouse gas emissions. We have a U.S. Supreme Court that says EPA must regulate.

Q. How will cap and trade affect our agriculture in the upper Great Plains?

A. Everybody expects that agriculture is going to end up paying higher fuel and higher fertilizer costs because of carbon regulations. There isn't any other way.

The real issue, in my mind, is that this is coming; it's a matter of when and how. I think the "when" is pretty soon. We don't have 10 more years to twiddle our thumbs.

Then the question is, how? We can sit back and say we don't believe in global warming, that we don't want anyone to regulate us. If we do, we'll end up without a seat at the table.

Farmers Union is right on this. It's better to be at the table than on the menu. That's the choice.

We have the potential to sequester 25 percent of all of the U.S. carbon emissions through agriculture and forestry. The most I've seen any scientist say that ag emits as much as 7 percent.

Waxman-Markey's agricultural offset program, overseen by the USDA, will help mitigate the increased input costs of a cap-and-trade program. It has an "early actors" provision that credits producers who already have adopted environmentally friendly practices.

Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota also addressed the controversial theory of "indirect land use," which holds U.S. farmers accountable for farmers' actions in foreign countries if they grow crops to replace energy crops that we're growing in America.

Q. How does the U.S. policy fit into the world?

A. The rest of the world largely has gone down the cap-and-trade route. Europe has a system in place. The Northeast states have adopted "Reggie" (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative Inc.), a cap-and-trade model. We have the Western Climate Initiative, with California and other states in an agreement that goes into the Canadian provinces.

And you have the Midwest governors -- not North Dakota, but six Midwestern states that have signed into the cap-and-trade, and most of the rest are what they call observers. They've agreed to do something, but not the whole deal.

But none of these have authorized agriculture offsets. There are purists out there, mostly in the environmental community, who argue that what they really want to happen is to squash down the "emissions folks" under the capped sector, such as electric generators, big industries, cement manufacturers and the like. But much of it is in coal-based electricity.

The purists will argue they don't care if you guys put carbon into the ground and keep it there. That's really misguided. Sure, we want emitters to reduce emissions. But the atmosphere doesn't care if there are fewer emissions or whether you're taking CO2 out from a different side. If you can do that and get paid for it -- and if the cost is cheaper than regulating these industries -- why wouldn't you do it?

Of course, we don't want ag to get paid for doing things that aren't of any value.

Q. How do you see the timetable for this legislation?

A. I think we'll have more action before December because that's when the Copenhagen meeting comes (Dec. 7-18).

I think the U.S. would have reduced its standing in the world if our negotiators were to have gone to Copenhagen with nothing. It doesn't mean it has to be signed into law, but perhaps the bills will be in a position to be reconciled.

The stakes on this are enormously high.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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