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Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service, Published November 22 2013

High-ranking USDA official warns that lack of farm bill will hurt export programs

MANDAN, N.D. – The lack of a long-term federal farm bill is jeopardizing foreign trade offices and programs that have contributed to the best five-year run of agricultural trade in U.S. history and allowed North Dakota to more than double its exports of farm products since 2006, farmers and government officials said here Friday.

“Now’s not the time to stop this agricultural-trade freight train. I mean, we are going stronger than we ever have in history, and we need to keep this going,” Michael Scuse, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, said during a roundtable discussion in Mandan with U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring and representatives of farm-related companies and commodity groups.

Funds for the USDA’s Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Program, which work with trade organizations and others to develop and expand export markets for U.S. agricultural products, are tied up in the current farm bill debate, Scuse said.

“So if we don’t get a farm bill, if these programs don’t get reauthorized and if we don’t get the funding for it, it will put a serious strain on our cooperators and the foreign offices that they have,” he said.

The USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service has a global network of 96 offices covering 169 countries, and U.S. agricultural trade is on track to hit a record $141 billion this year after setting a record of $137 billion two years ago, Scuse said.

“Our farmers and ranchers are dependent on our foreign markets,” he said. “Twenty percent of everything that’s grown in this country is exported, so we need to make sure that we continue to have these markets and we need to have these programs.”

Garrison-based JM Grain, which buys and sells a variety of peas, lentils and chickpeas, benefited from a trade mission to Colombia in October 2012 by signing contracts with several new customers there, said vice president of marketing Beverly Flaten, whose family owns the company.

Flaten said the company, which also ships to India, Pakistan and a host of other countries, isn’t big enough to do the type of market research necessary to lay the groundwork for such export deals. But because of those deals, the company has been able to hire additional employees – including an international marketing director – and offer higher prices to area farmers for their premium products, she said.

“Without that extra support, we couldn’t be able to do what we do,” she said of the export programs.

Dan Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, also stressed the importance of the market access and foreign market programs, noting that 50 percent of North Dakota wheat and 33 percent of the state’s durum are exported.

Scuse said the programs used to be frequent targets for budget cuts, but Congress now understands the value of the programs, which he said provide a $35 return for every $1 of investment.

Still, without a long-term federal budget and farm bill, Heitkamp, D-N.D., warned that “in this environment, you are always at risk with the next round of sequestration.”

“We are fighting for our lives to hang on to these programs,” she said.

Farm bill negotiations between leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees looked promising Wednesday but stalled Thursday, primarily because of disagreement over the commodity title, which includes support payments and loans, and whether the new farm bill’s safety net should be based on current acres planted or on base acres, said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.

In the past, the base-acres approach has resulted in farmers receiving direct payments for land on which they weren’t growing crops, Peterson said.

“Our concern is that we’re going to end up with the same criticism we’ve had on direct payments,” he said in a phone interview.

Differences also remain over cuts to the food stamp program, “but we can’t even get to that because we can’t get through the commodity title,” Peterson said.

Peterson said he believes it’s still possible to finish a farm bill this year, but with the upcoming Thanksgiving recess and different work schedules for the House and Senate in December, “It’s going to be down to the wire,” he said. Heitkamp said she, too, remains optimistic a comprehensive farm bill will pass by Jan. 1.

Committee leaders are scheduled to talk by phone Monday, and conferees have been alerted that they may have to return to Congress on Dec. 4, Peterson said.