Montana House candidate John Lewis offers agriculture plan

2014-07-31T17:13:00Z 2014-08-19T13:33:06Z Montana House candidate John Lewis offers agriculture planBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — Democratic House candidate John Lewis on Thursday released a five-part farm and ranch platform that he said reaffirms his commitment to the one in five Montana jobs that depend on agriculture.

“Montana priorities should be driving the agriculture policies that come out of Washington, not the other way around,” Lewis said.

Here are the planks of his platform:

Promoting a new generation of farmers and ranchers. With the average age of Montana farmers 58.9 years old in 2012, Lewis said the lack of young people taking over family operations is one of the greatest threats to Montana agriculture.

He said he would push for full funding of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Direct Farm Ownership loans to boost lending capacity and allow beginning farmers and ranchers to buy land. He said he would push for “robust funding” for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account program, to encourage them to invest in savings accounts toward farmland purchases.

Fighting to keep Farm Service Agency offices open for business. Lewis said he would oppose President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget proposal to close 250 Farm Service Agency offices nationally.

Instead, he said, the administration should work on other cost-saving measures such as creating rural business centers, co-locating these offices with Natural Resources Conservation offices or soil and water conservation offices.

Montana has 48 Farm Service Agency offices that service large areas. Lewis called them the centers for agricultural producers in need of disaster relief, business loans, commodity price support and other programs.

Improving rail traffic for agriculture. Lewis said earlier this spring, more than 3,000 rail cars carrying agricultural commodities in Montana were more than a month late, costing farmers revenue.

Lewis said the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and BNSF Railway must do a better job of prioritizing rail shipments of agricultural commodities throughout the state. Lewis said he would push for some specific provisions in the new Highway Bill to addressed diminished rail capacity.

Investing in agricultural research and development.

Lewis said every $1 in publicly funded investment in agriculture and food generates $20 in economic activity. He said the Montana university system can lead be a driving force in researching livestock-related diseases such as brucellosis, to the benefit of Montanans.

Promoting Montana products and giving ranchers and farmers a stronger voice.

If elected, Lewis said he would immediately work to ensure that current Farm Bill programs are being implemented properly and working for Montana farmers and ranchers. He said he’d start laying the groundwork for the next Farm Bill.

He called for “common sense principles” to be implemented regarding the Environmental Protection Agency, Endangered Species Act and public land management in terms of dealing with farmers and ranchers.

In response, Shelby DeMars, spokeswoman for Lewis’ Republican opponent, Ryan Zinke, criticized some of Lewis’s proposals.

“John Lewis is endorsed by the same environmental groups that are behind rising fuel costs, increasing water regulation through the EPA, and that want to restrict land use and reintroduce free-roaming bison to the landscape,” Shelby DeMars said. “Montana’s farmers and ranchers aren’t going to let Lewis pull the wool over their eyes.”

Zinke, in contrast, has been endorsed by the Montana Stockgrowers’ Association and “supports hard-working farmers and ranchers across the state,” DeMars said. She said Lewis “has spent his life catering to extreme environmental groups that make it more difficult for Montana’s farmers and ranchers to make a living.”

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