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Ag commissioner, farmers talk farm bill in Bismarck

BISMARCK (AP) -- Crop insurance, research and export promotion should be among the top priorities in the next federal farm bill, say spokesmen for North Dakota agricultural groups, who are bracing for cuts in federal spending.

"We'll have less resources to work with," said Shane Goettle, state director for U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. "It's very important that we're communicating solidly what the priorities for the farm bill will be, because those ... will dictate what has to give, and what has to be preserved."

Goettle and representatives for Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., were among the speakers Friday at a forum called by Doug Goehring, the North Dakota agriculture commissioner, to discuss the shape of new federal farm legislation.

Congress usually approves a comprehensive farm bill every five years. The most recent legislation was approved in 2008.

Goehring said the discussion was urgent given Congress' recent approval of budget legislation that authorizes a "super committee" of lawmakers to recommend reductions in federal spending growth of at least $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

The committee is required to offer its budget legislation before Thanksgiving. Goehring said it was important for North Dakota farmers to make their federal agriculture spending priorities known well before then.

The U.S. Agriculture Department provides an assortment of crop insurance policies, which offer compensation if crops are damaged by drought, insects, excessive rain, disease and other problems. Several speakers among the 60 people who attended the forum said it was critical that federal crop insurance options be maintained and improved.

Terry Weckerly, a Hurdsfield farmer who is president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, said he was worried about the possibility that crop insurance coverage will be linked to mandatory soil conservation practices. North Dakota farmers shouldn't have those dictated to them, Weckerly said.

"I believe these things need to be shouted out early and loud about the opposition against them," Weckerly said. "We're not going to have somebody in Washington, D.C., tell us how we're going to farm, because they don't farm in Wells County."

Federally funded research into crops that are hardier and produce better yields is especially important, because the world's population is growing and the amount of land available for farming is shrinking, participants said.

Neal Fisher, administrator of the North Dakota Wheat Commission, said federal support for opening more foreign markets to U.S. farm exports was significant, and its share of the federal budget was minuscule -- "millions compared to hundreds of billions."

"Agricultural trade is the only sector of the U.S. economy that has a positive trade balance right now," Fisher said.

Goehring said comments during the forum will be used to brief North Dakota's congressional delegation about the state's agricultural spending priorities. He said he also intends to present the information to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, which includes agriculture officials across the country.

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