By DAVE WILKINS (Capital Press)
NAMPA, Idaho -- Idaho ag producers made the most of an opportunity to provide input on the next farm bill during a field hearing May 1 conducted by the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.
Representatives from the dairy, beef cattle, sheep, sugar beet, potato, grain, tree fruit, wine grape, forestry and organic sectors all testified during the three-hour hearing in Nampa.
Witnesses provided a long list of likes and dislikes about existing federal farm programs and suggested some changes for the next farm bill, slated for 2012.
Representatives told the panel that federal subsidies for the corn-based ethanol industry are hurting the Idaho cattle and dairy industries.
Several witnesses said immigration reform is badly needed if agriculture is to have a reliable work force in the future.
Kelly Henggeler, a fourth-generation fruit grower from Fruitland, called for enactment of AgJOBS, which would reform the H-2A program.
"Without ( AgJOBS), I fear there will be fewer and fewer American-produced apples and increased imports," he told the panel. "Failure to act means giving away our industry and our markets to foreign competitors."
Representatives from the potato, wine grape and tree fruit industries said the next farm bill should retain important provisions for specialty crop grants and market access programs.
Witnesses said some farm programs, while well intentioned, are simply too burdensome and bureaucratic.
Charles Lyons, a rancher from Mountain Home and president-elect of the Idaho Cattle Association, said he opted out of an EQIP contract to install a 10,000-gallon stockwater tank because it would cost more to paint the tank as required than to install the system on his own.
Adrian Boer, a dairyman from Jerome, said the industry is struggling and looking for a more efficient government support program.
Existing dairy support programs fail to adequately protect against low milk prices and low profit margins that occur when input costs, especially feed costs, skyrocket, Boer told committee members.
Discontinuing the existing Dairy Product Price Support Program and shifting toward a new income protection program would provide dairy farmers with a more effective safety net, Boer told the panel.
The 2008 Farm Bill, which carried a $284 billion price tag, expanded many conservation programs while putting less emphasis on direct payments compared with previous bills. But direct payments are still an integral source of support from many farm families, said Scott Brown, an Eastern Idaho farmer and president of the Idaho Grain Producers Association.
"The direct payment has been and is very popular with Idaho's grain farmers," Brown told the committee members. "In many cases, the direct payment has meant the difference between producers abandoning the farm or giving producers another chance with their banks to stay in business."
Members of the ag committee attending the Idaho hearing were Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn.; Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho; Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.; Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D.; and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. Also joining the panel was Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
In his opening comments Minnick acknowledged that many of the existing farm programs are too cumbersome for producers.
A new farm bill is needed that allows efficient farmers to "spend less time farming the government and more time farming their land," Minnick said.