Montana’s major farm groups aren’t warming to federal climate change legislation, but a small group of independents say environmental changes will put them out of business if nothing is done.
Baker farmer Wade Sikorski said he and other independent farmers from around Montana have seen declining snowfall and extreme temperature fluctuations in their lifetimes that will damage farm production beyond the point of profitability if changes continue.
“There’s definitely a difference between what I’ve seen as a child and what I’m seeing now,” said Sikorski, 54. “As a child, I remember incredible winters in the 1960s, snow in the fall that didn’t thaw until spring. The melt would come in a rush and fill the irrigation project. That’s not happening this year.”
This year’s snowmelt didn’t wash the gullies, Sikorski said. Instead, the Eastern Montanan’s farm ground, which never got cold enough to freeze deeply, soaked up the melting snow.
Sikorski and four dozen other farmers last week pressed Montana’s senators, Democrats Max Baucus and Jon Tester, to support aggressive caps on greenhouse gases. For months, the two have been cautiously assuring voters they won’t support anything that harms Montana, while stating that something has to be done about climate change.
A bipartisan climate change bill was slated for rollout last Monday, until Republican co-author, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, withdrew support after learning of plans by Democrats to put the bill on the back burner and work on immigration reform instead.
The delay followed weeks of the political wheel greasing to make the legislation known as cap and trade more appealing. President Barack Obama announced loan guarantees for nuclear power plants, proposed opening vast areas of ocean along Alaska, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastline to drilling.
Concerns not addressed
However, the enticements didn’t address the concerns of Montana’s major farm groups, which worry that the state’s coal-dependent energy companies will pass on any fees incurred by polluting beyond caps set by federal climate change law. The groups were also hoping that more would be done with carbon offsets, which is the practice of carbon dioxide polluters offsetting their emissions by paying farmers to capture carbon through practices like no-till farming.
A couple of years ago, both the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and Montana Farmers Union were registering members in carbon exchange markets where polluters can buy offsets. Once hot commodities, those exchange programs have fallen flat for lack of strong consideration in the federal climate change debate. Without offsets, farm groups say climate change legislation only offers them higher utility bills.
“Agriculture is the biggest user of electricity in Montana,” said John Youngberg, Montana Farm Bureau’s vice president of governmental affairs. “The one thing nobody seems to understand is that (energy companies) don’t pay higher costs, they just collect them.”
When the Montana Farmers Union held its annual meeting last year, members broke from their national organization and opposed cap and trade. Chris Christiaens, MFU’s legislative and project specialist, said current climate change legislation would need work before his group would support it. Carbon offsets would have to be part of the equation, but so would land locked up in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave marginal land out of production. CRP land should count for carbon offsets, as well, Christiaens said.
MFU wouldn’t reverse its policy position until its fall meeting.