MISSOULA — Montana has several non-farm stakes in the federal farm bill now working its way through Congress, according to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
In an interview with the Missoulian on Tuesday, Vilsack touted the version developed by the Senate’s Democratic majority and warned that a Republican-crafted House version could hurt Montana interests. Vilsack is the former Democratic governor of Iowa.
“This is a bill everybody in the country has a stake in,” Vilsack said. “It gives certainty to producers what the rules and programs will be. And it restores disaster assistance for livestock and dairy producers who suffered through difficult times in last year’s drought.”
But the Senate bill has more money for biofuel energy research and production than the House version. Some of those programs apply to Montana’s waste-wood fuel production studies, where tree limbs and chips are transformed to charcoal or liquid fuel.
“If we want to rebuild rural economies, we need to create more small biomass facilities,” Vilsack said. “The Senate version provides resources and funding, but the House has a more narrowly crafted bill that doesn’t provide the necessary funding.”
The five-year bill covers a wide range of farm programs, crop insurance policies and food production and distribution supports. It has failed to make it out of Congress the past two years.
Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said he has been vocal about the need for a five-year bill that includes comprehensive revenue loss coverage for farmers. But Daines’ spokeswoman, Alee Lockman, added that he is still waiting to see the specifics of the Senate version.
Vilsack also objected to Republican proposals to cut money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp program, which he said would directly hurt local farmers.
“The $20 billion reduction they’re proposing for many reasons is not the right way to go,” Vilsack said. “They’re trying to reduce the number of people on SNAP, claiming the process is flawed and allows unqualified people to slip in. You may catch a few people who are not qualified that way, but you disqualify a substantial number of otherwise qualified people. And that hurts your local grocery stores and farmers markets. People won’t be able to buy as much at the grocery store.”
However, the Senate version approved in committee also cuts $400 million annually from the SNAP program, mainly by reducing heating bill assistance in warm-weather states.
The Senate version of the bill also contains some efforts for protection of sage grouse, an increasingly rare prairie bird at risk of being placed on the federal endangered species list. Vilsack said getting farmers and ranchers to support sage grouse survival could pre-empt future ESA regulations on land use.
“The sage grouse initiative is about funding landscape-scale operations, as opposed to individual conservation programs,” Vilsack said. “We’re seeing some real success with money we’re investing in that area.”
“And like Secretary Vilsack, Steve would agree that it is critical to ensure that sage grouse do not end up on the endangered species list,” Lockman said in an email. “However, Steve also believes that it is important that sage grouse habitat conservation is based on sound science and ample input from local communities and the state.”