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Mikkel Pates, Forum Communications, Published July 28 2012

Senate ag chairwoman tours ND with Heitkamp

FARGO – U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., says that retiring Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., is a close ally in the Senate and that she needs a fighter with a heart for public service – like Heidi Heitkamp – to replace him.

Stabenow traveled in North Dakota on Saturday, appearing at two agricultural “forum” appearances with Heitkamp in Mandan and rural Fargo. Stabenow was praised by agricultural leaders at both meetings for passing a farm bill in the Senate. In rural Fargo, she spoke in a farm shop event at the Jake Gust farmstead, north of Fargo, flanked by a red tractor and U.S. and North Dakota flags. Earlier in the day she attended a forum in Mandan.

Heitkamp campaign staff said it is the only time in recent decades when a sitting Senate Agriculture chair holder had come to the state.

Stabenow said the relatively green crop conditions in North Dakota stand in contrast to the terrible drought across the United States – even in her own state – and that disaster provisions in the farm bill need to be passed.

Heitkamp, who faces U.S. Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., for a Senate post in the Nov. 6 election, and Stabenow used the occasions to say that Berg and his Republican allies haven’t done enough to pass a bill that undergirds what Heitkamp said is the No. 1 industry in the state – even ahead of oil. The current multi-year farm bill expires Sept. 30.

The farm bill plays a big role in the region’s agriculture. Aaron Krauter, a Democratic appointee and state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, said the farm bill is vital to provide a safety net for farmers. He said North Dakota received a total of $6.1 billion in farm program supports for the years 2008 to 2011. About $3.4 billion were in crop insurance indemnities over that period. Farmers paid $1.3 billion in premiums, but taxpayers subsidized them with nearly $2.2 billion in premium subsidies.

Stabenow said the Senate has passed a bipartisan farm bill and that the House Agriculture Committee has passed a bill, but it appears House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wants to send back a one-year extension of current policy and an ad hoc disaster bill that is “less than what we really need.” She predicted the Senate will reject the proposal and will spend August negotiating.

“The only thing that will go to the (House) floor is this one-year extension,” Stabenow says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” She called it “quite shocking” that the House leadership is unwilling to bring a bill that came out of the committee on a bipartisan vote. She said about half of the Republican caucus doesn’t think there should be a farm bill, so the party may not have votes to pass it.

“Pass the farm bill. Go debate it,” Heitkamp said, as if speaking to Republican leaders, and to Berg. “You’ve got a farm bill you’ve voted out of committee. Put it on the floor.”

The House version has fewer payment limit reforms and fewer shifts toward crop insurance.

Stabenow and Heitkamp says the House is looking at an extension of the 2008 farm bill, which doesn’t do what they think it needs to do on energy, livestock and dairy. “We’ve got a disaster plan that’s anemic for the country, and we might need a disaster program before this crop year is over,” Heitkamp says.

Heitkamp said Berg would have to “come with a list of people who are going to support a compromise farm bill that looks a whole lot like the Senate farm bill.” She thinks Berg was “late coming to the discussion.” She noted that the majority of the House members are Republicans, and they could pass a farm bill without a single Democrat vote.

Mikkel Pates writes for AgWeek