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Racicot: We must save agriculture

Racicot: We must save agriculture

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Governor shares ideas with leaders from 13 Western statesPOLSON - Gov. Marc Racicot introduced western state farm leaders Wednesday to his administration's plan to double the economic value of Montana agriculture in the brief space of seven years.

With farm income trailing other sectors of the economy, with prices for agricultural commodities like cattle and wheat near historic lows, and with agricultural open space being eaten up for residential housing and commercial development, the Montana farmer needs state and federal government help to keep farming's "infrastructure" in place, the popular Republican governor said.

"We have as much responsibility to preserve our agricultural infrastructure, which includes many small farmers, as maintaining our highways and our dams," Racicot told a conference of the American Farm Bureau Federation Western Region at KwaTaqNuk Resort in Polson. About 30 Farm Bureau leaders from 13 Western states attended the conference, which concluded Wednesday.

The responsibility to promote and protect American agriculture is both a state and national one, he said.

"We have extraordinary products, but we don't always find a level playing field" competing against other nations, he said. That needs attention at the federal level, he said. He specifically mentioned Canada as a "challenge", especially with regard to beef exports.

"We have to be more aggressive at the federal level in pursuing free trade and fair trade," he said. Another issue of national policy that deserves attention is support of the International Monetary Fund, which has been propping up Asian economies since a crisis began last year in many Asian nations.

The IMF deserves America's support and encouragement in this effort, and the IMF support should not become politicized, he said. He noted that "40 percent of our exports flow to the Pacific Rim."

Racicot returned in his discussion to one of his favorite themes - that agriculture is more important to Montana and America than just an economic "sector."

Agriculture provides a "reservoir of values" for the rest of America, Racicot said. Farmers and ranchers and small farm towns across the country are nothing less than the "glue" that holds American society together, he said. Thus farmers and their problems deserve special government attention, because their way of life is too valuable to be lost.

He suggested that in addition to crop insurance, flood insurance and car insurance, America's farmers may need revenue insurance, to protect them against those long-term financial free falls that may occur to individual farmers through no fault of their own. Such a policy in fact is under discussion by several western state governors, he said.

Racicot's own economic plan for agriculture does not yet include this recommendation. But he does have a plan.

In March he appointed a task force to address the problems of Montana agriculture in the first years of the 21st century, and the group already has come up with an interim report with numerous recommendations for government attention.

The Vision 2005 Task Force on Agriculture is comprised of representatives of about 25 groups, private, educational and governmental, with farming, banking, trade and marketing officials prominent among the representatives.

Final recommendations of the task force are due in October, and many may need Legislative action, especially those recommending staff increases for the state Department of Agriculture, and increased appropriations for various marketing and educational or research programs.

In the Vision 2005 interim report, released June 29, the task force recommends more technical assistance to farm and ranch operators, more technical education for producers to improve marketing and entrepreneurial skills, an emphasis on adding value to Montana's basic agricultural products, and hiring of a new "agricultural business recruitment specialist" in the Department of Agriculture, plus ancillary staff.

The task force also is expected to recommend tax reform, increased funding for university research, and an increase in stat

e government money for conservation easements, to keep land in agricultural production. Farmers are finding it hard to resist offers from competing uses that may bring the farmer more money if he sells his farm than if he stays on the land and works it.

"Our hope is to produce about

$2 million in state dollars" for conservation easements or similar tools to be matched with private dollars, Racicot said.

But some in his Farm Bureau audience wanted to hear less about what government could do for them, and more about what government shouldn't be doing to them.

"We are being strangled at all levels" by government regulation, Bill Pauli, California Farm Bureau Federation president from Sacramento, told Racicot. Pauli specifically cited environmental regulation, pesticide safety rules, land use restrictions and water quality laws as examples of excessive government intrusion into agriculture's private business.

Others mentioned the Endangered Species Act as an unfair burden on agriculture nationwide.

Government regulation is the "fundamental problem" hampering America's producers in worldwide competition, Pauli said. "We cannot continue to compete in the long term" harnessed by state and federal health, safety and environmental protection rules, Pauli told Racicot.

Racicot agreed that government regulation too often is burdensome - even for state governors like himself.

"We've been working for five and a half years for reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act to give more state control" rather than federal control of Endangered Species Act enforcement and remediation, he said. "But we have been unable to get Congress to endorse that proposal."

Racicot said a "reasonable and thoughtful balance" is needed between the interests of agriculture and other parts of a free-enterprise economy, and the larger society's demand for protection of the environment, of endangered and threatened species, and for rules to benefit human health and safety.

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