WASHINGTON – It almost didn’t happen at all, but much of the farm bill passed by Congress this week is good for Montana — including disaster aid for farmers, country-of-origin labeling for meats and a provision that could help head off development of privately owned land in western Montana.
Montana Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, was one of the bill’s chief negotiators. He is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, but he became even more involved when negotiators on the bill asked the Senate Finance Committee for extra money for the bill. Baucus is chairman of that panel.
He used that position to his advantage, insisting on the disaster provision, which is important to Montana farmers and ranchers who have suffered through drought in recent years. Members of Congress who are from other states less affected by drought did not see why the disaster provision was needed, saying it was too expensive and subject to abuse by farmers who would plant on land that shouldn’t be farmed.
Baucus’s insistence on the aid delayed progress on the bill. But Baucus, North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad and other supporters of the disaster aid appeased critics by reducing the cost from $5 billion in the Senate bill to $3.8 billion in the final agreement, shifting some money to nutrition and restricting the disaster program to farmers who had losses throughout their farms, and not just one-crop losses.
Baucus said the program could help keep farmers in business.
“They see long days in the fields, unpredictability caused by droughts, hail storms, hurricanes and floods, and a low payoff at the end of the day,” he said. “Too frequently, they decide it is not worth the effort to come back to the family farm.”
The legislation also includes language by Baucus that would allow state and local governments to issue bonds to help conservation organizations buy private lands. That provision would provide incentives for non-profits to buy land from Plum Creek Timber Co., a large owner of land in Montana.
Though the language appears to be tailored for Montana, Baucus said the provision is a “model for other states” and would help keep pristine private lands out of developers’ hands.
The bill also would:
— Require country-of-origin labeling for fresh meats and other foods, a provision designed to help northern ranchers compete against Canada.
— Increase loan rates and target prices for wheat, barley, oats and oilseeds, starting in 2010.
— Allow some small meat plants to sell their products across state lines, a change from current policy.
— Provide incentives to farmers and ranchers who open their land to hunters and fishermen.
— Help prevent the closure of Farm Service Agency offices.
— Boost incentives for those who grow crops for energy, including money for start-up crops of camelina, a provision inserted by Montana Sen. Jon Tester.
— Increase loans for beginning farmers and ranchers.
— Boost food stamps and other nutrition programs by $10.3 billion.
Despite all of that, Montanans will find a few disappointments in the bill.
The Senate version included a ban on meatpacker ownership of livestock for two weeks before slaughter, a priority for High Plains ranchers who own smaller ranches and hope to stem competition from larger companies. That provision passed by the Senate was stripped in negotiations.
All three members of the Montana congressional delegation — Baucus, Tester and Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg — voted for the bill. It won overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate this week, protecting the legislation from an expected veto from President Bush. He says the bill is too expensive and would not do enough to cut payments to wealthy farmers.
“Is it perfect? No,” said Tester, a farmer. “But is it pretty darn good? Yes. This farm bill does things for people in production agriculture that it needs to do to make sure that they remain in business.”
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