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HIGHLIGHTS FROM SENATE AG COMMITTEE'S FARM BILL HEARING IN MICHIGAN
Agri-Pulse reports:

The leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee came to central Michigan Saturday for a listening session on what different segments of the farm community are looking for in the 2018 farm bill.

And the lawmakers - Committee Chair Pat Roberts and the panel's top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, on a trip to her home state of Michigan - heard plenty.

In all, 16 witnesses testified, calling for support for everything from crop insurance, conservation and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to more funding for research and for programs to advance organic and urban farming and to help veterans. Many of the witnesses described a web of red tape that was strangling their operations and said a regulatory rollback was needed.

Roberts, who hosted a similar listening session in his home state of Kansas in February, opened the hearing by recognizing that these are tough times for agriculture, yet with the national debt exceeding $19 trillion, he said the sector must realize it has to "do more with less."

"We must be judicious with the scarce resources we have, "Roberts said. "We must ensure programs accomplish their fundamental purposes. We must ask tough questions and reexamine programs to determine their effectiveness."

Stabenow, in her opening statement, argued that the 2014 farm bill is expected to end up saving the government $80 billion more than had been expected.

"We know that the farm bill has done more than its fair share to reduce the deficit," she told a crowd of about 150 farmers and ag leaders who filled a Michigan State University extension center outside the town of Frankenmuth. "Any further cuts would be detrimental to farmers and families."

The day's first witness, Janna Fritz, a farmer from Bad Axe, Mich., spoke for the Michigan Corn Growers Association. She stressed that with the multiyear decline in farm income, a strong farm safety net along with a robust crop insurance program was critical to growers. She also said the Agriculture Risk Coverage-County (ARC) program was working well and its continuation is a "high priority" for her members, along with a strong Renewable Fuel Program, which turns billions of bushels of corn each year into ethanol.

Representing the American Soybean Association Da,vid Williams, from W Farms in Elsie, Michigan, made a case for more support for biobased products in the farm bill. He surprised Roberts and many in the room by pointing out that "every fourth car made in North America now contains soy in its seat cushions."

Several witnesses, including Chris Alpers, a tree-fruit grower from Lake Leelanau, Michigan, said one of the biggest problems facing agriculture is a shortage of workers to harvest crops.

"Labor is the number-one issue on farms," Alpers said, adding that he has "personally witnessed crops wasting away on trees" because of delays in the H-2A visa program.

Alpers also provided the hearing with some humor, describing a USDA regulation that he said required farmers to document the wildlife that crossed their fields.

"Utterly ridiculous," Roberts exclaimed.

Andy Snider, who runs a turkey farm in Hart, Mich., was representing the Michigan Turkey Producers Co-op. He called for another look at a new rule that mandates organically raised poultry be provided with outdoor "porches" to move around in. He said this could put many producers out of business.

Roberts said he would be "delighted" to ask Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to delay the implementation of the rule. He concluded the hearing by promising to share the testimony from today's hearing with the other members of his committee. He predicted that getting a farm bill done will be a "difficult task." But he added, "I have no doubt we can do it, and in a timely manner."

In a press conference following the hearing, Roberts also promised that during the farm bill negotiations he would protect crop insurance, which in the past has been the target of budget hawks.

"We are not going to see dramatic cuts in crop insurance," Roberts said. "We're just not."

Click here to access a video of the field hearing and a full witness list.


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