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Well spoken comments at farm bill listening session

HENDERSON, COLO.—In a standing room only crowd of over 130 farmers, ranchers, politicians, reporters and concerned citizens, meeting at the Adams County Fairgrounds Monday afternoon, the participants were able to get their two cents worth in at a farm bill listening session sponsored by U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU). All aspects of farm policy were discussed, with panelists covering health, nutrition, rural poverty, conservation, credit, crop insurance, specialty crops, livestock, energy, rural development, trade, research, and commodity programs.

“I would hate to see our food supply held hostage the way our fuel is, as we now import 60 percent of the oil Americans use,” Salazar said in his opening remarks. “Less than 1 percent of all federal spending is for U.S. agriculture programs. All who care about our food security need to be echoing this message.”

Included in the 1 percent or $100 billion nationwide is some $52 billion that is spend on nutrition programs, such as food stamps, the WIC program, and school lunches and breakfasts. Salazar also noted that both the U.S. budget deficit and World Trade Organization negotiations will have a tremendous impact on the final U.S. farm bill. Whether a new farm bill is written in 2007 or the current farm bill is simply extended until budget and trade issues are better known, he encouraged those attending the listening session to continue to push for changes they wish to see in U.S. federal farm policy.

“I am very pleased to have heard articulation of concerns and solutions on many, many different topics from an array of people,” said RMFU President John Stencel. “I think it was very important for Senator Salazar to hear the comments and respond to many of the issues voiced by participants. It was a great opportunity for many people to directly address the senator, who is a member of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee.”

Health, Nutrition and Rural Poverty

Testimony from food, nutrition and consumer groups indicated a strong desire to reconnect food with the farmers and ranchers who produce it. Panelists urged an increase in funding for nutrition programs, such as food stamps and school lunches, as well as less burdensome paperwork for food assistance programs, and promotion of local, seasonal foods.

“We wish to stress the need for improving access to the program by providing additional resources for systems and outreach,” said panelist Kathy White, project coordinator for the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. “In fiscal year 2003, only 37 percent of all eligible working poor families in Colorado received food stamps.”

Conservation, Credit, Crop Insurance, Specialty Crops and Livestock

Testimony from the panel on conservation, credit, crop insurance, specialty crops and livestock made recommendations ranging from modernizing the Farm Credit System to more thorough and equitable application of crop insurance pay-outs to more research and risk management programs for specialty crops to funding of conservation programs authorized in the 2002 farm bill to less monopolization in agricultural markets.

Gerald Schreiber, a Woodrow, Colo., cattle producer speaking on behalf of the Colorado Independent Cattle Grower’s Association, said, “We don’t want to get our price from government subsidies but with the concentration of power in agricultural markets, we need government action to enforce laws addressing anti-competitive practices.”

Schreiber recommended farm bill or other legislation call for the implementation of anti-trust laws, as well as packer ownership prohibitions within 14 days of slaughter. He suggested that no more than 50 percent of animals bought by packers be purchased through forward pricing arrangements. He also asked that the senator push for implementation of mandatory country-of-origin labeling as passed in the 2002 farm bill.

Energy, Rural Development, Trade and Research

A third panel focused on energy, rural development, trade and research.

“My recommendation is to simplify the renewable energy grant program. It is set up for large companies. Small businessmen and farmers wishing to apply for $5,000 or $10,000 grants have to complete a 40-page application and provide expensive studies. It’s just not worth it,” said John Fehringer, a farmer and owner of an oil crop processing company that makes oil for biodiesel.

Renewable energy development proponent Tom Potter said that unlike the potential for renewable energy, such as wind and biofuels, where dollars earned in the community can remain in local hands, currently 80 percent of all dollars spent on energy for Colorado goes out of state, with the majority of it going to the Middle East for the purchase of crude oil. Potter said federal policies need to favor renewable energy and also recommended structuring programs so that the dollars earned from renewable projects stay within the areas where they are generated.

Speaking in favor of maintaining or increasing agricultural research was Dr. Merle Vigil, from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Akron, Colo., “We’re not doing science for science’s sake. Rather, our research is what is recommended by farmers to help them be more efficient and profitable.”

Kent Peppler, a Platteville, Colo., farmer serving on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Trade Advisory Committee on Sweeteners, urged U.S. trade negotiators to hold out for fair trade. “The United States has a perpetual habit of agreeing to trade pacts that put producers, workers and citizens at a disadvantage. It might be free trade, but it sure isn’t fair trade.”

Farm Program Commodities

A permanent disaster assistance program, full funding and implementation of the Conservation Security Plan, and continuation of safety net programs like loan deficiency payments were recommended by the final panel on farm program commodities.

Panel member Jim Docheff, Jr., a Longmont, Colo., dairyman, called for continuation of the current dairy program price support system but urged an increase in price levels. “With the recent increase in energy prices, energy comprises about 25 percent of all input costs on the average farm, making it tougher to make a living without an increase in milk prices,” Docheff said.

Alan Welp, Wray, Colo., urged continuation of the U.S. sugar program, “This program costs the public nothing, and it helps stabilize the U.S. sugar producing and processing industry. Sugar producers in a multiple state area recently purchased and now operate sugar processing facilities. Don’t pull the rug out from under their feet by destabilizing this industry. The United States is already the second largest sugar importer in the world.”

Echoing others’ comments on trade policy, Burlington, Colo., farmer Norbert Pekarek said, “Current trade policies put farm policies under the dictates of the World Trade Organization. This is not right.”