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SD delegates discuss ag industry at Dakotafest

U.S. Sen. John Thune, middle, gives remarks about farm bill while fellow U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, left, and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem listen at a Dakotafest farm forum on Wednesday in Mitchell. The forum was hosted by the South Dakota Farm Bureau. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The clock is ticking on the current iteration of the farm bill, and South Dakota's three congressional delegates were on hand at Dakotafest to talk shop with area farmers.

Below the roof of the Reaves Building on Dakotafest grounds in Mitchell, U.S. Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem sat shielded from the much-needed rain to answer questions about the ag industry amid a drought-stricken summer in their home state.

South Dakota Farm Bureau President Scott VanderWal kicked off Wednesday's farm forum by thanking the trio of legislators for working ahead to increase the likelihood the farm bill can be updated before its expiration on Sept. 30, 2018.

"I want to personally thank them and commend them for having the foresight to start talking about farm bill issues and all the things that are going on in regard to that so we don't come in at halftime, and start thinking ahead," VanderWal said.

The longest-tenured member of Congress of the three delegates, Thune has rifled out a handful of proposals to include when replacing the Agricultural Act of 2014.

Thune, a Murdo native and the third-ranking Republican senator, has released five farm bill proposals in anticipation of the farm bill discussions. And according to one of his advisers, more of those proposals are coming after the August recess.

The farm bill veteran, working on his fourth as a member of Congress, said the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry he serves on is open to ideas from producers regarding some of the issues with the federal crop insurance program updated in the 2014 version of the bill.

Thune's proposals have ranged from areas of soil health and income protection to forest management, and he acknowledged there are some issues with the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) County crop insurance program, a program one of his fellow panelists expressed concerns about.

"That's something that needs to be fixed in the commodity title of the farm bill," Thune said. "ARC-County payments need to be based on where the farm is actually located, not the administrative county."

Russ Hurlbert, a Raymond farmer, was one of three farmers to share the dais with the three Republican members of Congress, and he offered the delegates his stance on the crop insurance program that has ruffled the feathers of producers since shortly after its inception.

Not long after the first round of payouts for the 2014 crop, some producers expressed concerns over why their crop insurance payments were lower than those of their neighbors. And Hurlbert said receiving payments based on the county where a producer lives, rather than where the land is located, is questionable.

"That brings quite an unfair advantage in my mind," Hurlbert said.

The payouts are based on average yields over a five-year period — minus the high and low yields over that period. With those averages determining what a farmer would receive for crop insurance, Hurlbert suggested a 10-year rolling average would provide a better baseline to dictate the average payout.

And it's folks like Hurlbert who Rounds said he hopes to hear from in the effort to build a better farm bill.

"Every chance we get to hear from you makes a difference in Washington, D.C.," Rounds said. "Your voice really does count."

Like Thune, Noem was quick to rattle off several farm bill proposals she's backed in anticipation of the expiration of the current bill. From proposals meant to slow the rise of cash rent to another that would allow farmers to immediately donate hay from conservation land, the family farmer-turned-legislator is hoping to nix the issues that have arisen as part of the current bill.

And for Noem, protecting the country's ag economy isn't only an issue for farmers, it's a matter of national security.

"When I talk to those representatives in the House that don't have any ag in their district, I tell them it's important we grow our own food in this country, that we feed ourselves," she said, "because the instant that we don't do that, we import food, then that other country controls us when they control our food supply."

Sights set on trade

At the forum, moderated by former state Agriculture Secretary Walt Bones, each legislator highlighted the impact of international trade agreements in creating broader economic markets for the state's ag industry.

The discussion was held as President Donald Trump's administration attempts to restructure the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada and after Trump killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) meant to lighten trade regulations with pacific nations.

The trio of legislators agreed that free trade agreements can be beneficial, and if the TPP isn't meant to be, bilateral agreements should be the next step.

"I think that's probably key to this whole thing is that if we're not going to do really large trade agreements like TPP was, we're going to have to be doing an accelerated business on (a) case-by-case basis," Rounds said.

Noem agreed, and said she recently met with the U.S. Trade Ambassador to discuss the issue of free trade. Thune took possibly the firmest stance, pushing for increased pressure to enact bilateral agreements with the countries that want to do business with the United States.

"If we're not going to have the multilateral agreements, then let's get aggressive," Thune said about pursuing bilateral agreements.

With several questions from the public answered Wednesday and a lot to consider about how to build a better farm bill for South Dakotans, perhaps the most important development of the day came from Mother Nature.

"Those of us who really need some rain appreciate it," Bones said as rain poured down on the roof above.