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Published September 11 2012

Farm bill expiration looms at Big Iron

WEST FARGO – Strong commodity prices and a fruitful harvest should have farmers smiling big at Big Iron this week, but the looming expiration of the federal farm bill on Sept. 30 also is fueling worries about next year.

“I just need to know if there’s going to be something there,” Langdon farmer Rick Schanz said.

With only seven working days left in Congress before the farm bill expires, Senate hopeful Heidi Heitkamp held a news conference Tuesday at the West Fargo fairgrounds to criticize her Republican opponent, Rep. Rick Berg, for failing to bring the bill to a vote in the GOP-majority House.

“If Rick Berg has the ear of his own political party, he can make this happen,” said Heitkamp, North Dakota’s former attorney general. “He can move this farm bill forward without one Democratic vote.”

Berg’s campaign spokesman said the first-term congressman has “pursued every possible avenue” to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

“From being outspoken in calling on House leadership to consider the measure to gathering signatures for a discharge petition to force consideration of the bill, Rick Berg’s commitment to this important measure and North Dakota’s farmers, ranchers, and producers is unwavering,” Chris Van Guilder said in an emailed statement.

The discharge petition needs 218 signatures to bypass House leadership and committees and force a vote. Van Guilder said he didn’t have a firm number of signatures on the petition because it’s still in the process of being filed.

Before the August recess, the Senate voted 64-35 to pass a bipartisan, five-year farm bill that Democrats say will save $23 billion through spending cuts in a number of areas, including eliminating direct-subsidy farm payments and cracking down on food stamp fraud and abuse, while also bolstering crop insurance.

In July, the House Agriculture Committee passed its own version of the bill, which makes deeper cuts to nutrition programs than the Senate bill. The House bill hasn’t made it to the floor.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said farmers need a new farm bill passed by Sept. 30 or they may face deeper cuts to programs after the election than are now being considered, Bloomberg News reported Monday.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member on the House Ag Committee, told the Marshall (Minn.) Independent on Monday that he’s been told House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will probably put the farm bill on hold for this year.

Heitkamp said it’s Berg’s job to persuade House leadership – including Boehner, who supported his campaign in 2010 – that a vote on the farm bill is “critically important.”

“Someone needs to be there fighting for North Dakota, fighting for a farm bill, and I don’t see that happening,” she said.

Van Guilder pointed out that Berg called for a farm bill vote on the House floor on July 19, sent a letter to House leadership calling for a vote and also signed a letter with 61 House colleagues calling for consideration of the bill. Some in Congress have indicated a one-year extension of the current farm bill is more likely.

Heitkamp said such an extension doesn’t give farmers the certainty they need and wouldn’t extend the energy title, “which is pretty important for our biofuels industry.”

Van Guilder said Berg is committed to a five-year bill but would consider an extension over letting the bill expire if it was “the last remaining option.”

Heitkamp acknowledged that passing a House bill and ironing out differences with the Senate in conference committee before final approval by Sept. 30 is “a huge, huge challenge.”

Jeff Steger, a Berg supporter who raises corn and soybeans near Galchutt about 30 miles south of Fargo, disagreed that Berg deserves blame for the bill not moving forward.

“None of them have any pull,” he said. “They all say that and then they get elected and it’s no different.”

Steger, who was sitting at a picnic table eating a rib-eye sandwich with his father, said the farm bill’s impending expiration is creating uncertainty as cash rents come due and farmers don’t know what crop insurance or payments will be available.

“It affects your business, and you want to know ahead of time before you lock into something you wish you wouldn’t have,” he said.

Strong commodity prices have eased worries, but growers know they won’t last forever, said Jason Jorissen, who raises wheat and soybeans near Dazey.

Jorissen, a Heitkamp supporter, recalled the days when North Dakota’s all-Democrat delegation helped push the farm bill through Congress.

“Now, I’m scared they’re not there and a new person isn’t going to get things done,” he said.

Schanz, who said he usually votes Republican but also voted for Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan in the past “because he was doing things for us,” said he typically figures out his budget for the next year by November. He said he doesn’t want a farm bill rushed through, but he’s concerned about whether a safety net will be in place.

“An extension would be good as long as we know we’re going to get something done,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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