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Dave Kolpack, Associated Press, Published July 13 2012

NDSU researcher says farm bill push really doesn't matter

FARGO — North Dakota political leaders are urging Congress to pass a new farm bill before this fall, but a former state governor and U.S. agriculture secretary from the state says it probably won't happen. A North Dakota State University researcher says it really doesn't matter.

Democrat Pam Gulleson and Republican Kevin Cramer, candidates for North Dakota's lone seat in the U.S. House, both held events with area producers earlier this week to discuss the bill, which has been approved in the Senate but has yet to reach the full House. The current farm legislation expires at the end of September.

Gulleson and Cramer do not favor a short-term extension of the current bill.

"That's not how North Dakotans think. We think in the long-term, what is going to be best for our families or our nation," Gulleson said.

"Our producers need the certainty that a five-year bill provides, and I hope that statesmanship and diplomacy will produce one prior to the Sept. 30 expiration," Cramer said.

Ed Schafer, the former North Dakota governor who served as U.S. agriculture secretary near the end of the George W. Bush administration, said Congress has rarely met deadlines for farm legislation. He doesn't see it happening this time.

"I don't think they've ever done a farm bill in Congress at the appropriate time," Schafer said. "I suspect that this year, in an election year especially, we won't see a farm bill."

Dwight Aakre, a farm management specialist with the NDSU Extension Service, said the approval of a bill Thursday by the House Agriculture Committee surprised him, but he still believes that meeting the September deadline is a "big hurdle." Either way, he doesn't understand the urgency.

"Nothing really changes for producers," Aakre said. "There is way too much made of the idea that farmers need to know what the farm bill is in order to plan for next year. That's just not true."

The House legislation would save $3.5 billion a year from current spending levels, as opposed to a $2.3 billion a year savings in the Senate version. Schafer said the cuts are reasonable. He favored similar reforms in 2008 when he was agriculture secretary, but the country didn't have the appetite for them.

"Now you can do it because of the financial condition of our country and the atmosphere out there," he said.

Even with the changes, Aakre said many aspects of the bill are good for North Dakota. Crop insurance has been bolstered, in lieu of direct payments. Livestock platforms are solid. The sugar program, rumored to be in trouble, survives in both the Senate and House version.

"It probably is better than one can expect, at least given the lip service paid to trying to balance the budget in Washington," Aakre said. "The sugar program appears to have skated through again. There's a tremendous amount of lobbying for that program."

The bill doesn't come without warning from experts. Aakre said the safety net doesn't appear to be strong enough to withstand multiple years of poor crop prices. Schafer said he sees some parallels with the energy industry.

"We have to be careful of the vagaries of disease and weather and soil conditions," Schafer said. "If we don't have a safety support system, we chase our production offshore. What we don't want to do is be dependent on food with other countries like we are with energy."


Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.