Ag industry facing challenges: Roads, surface rights important issues
As the fall elections draw near, southwest North Dakota has many issues it must face. The agricultural industry is booming, just like the oil industry, and its challenges are also developing.
Over time, roads deteriorate and need to be rebuilt. In the Oil Patch, the need for construction is imperative to agriculture, North Dakota Farmer's Union President Woody Barth said.
"Funding of the highway projects in North Dakota will be very important for the ag industry to move our crops to markets and also to bring our supplies from our centralized locations to our farms," he said.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple has it right with his $2.5 billion program for infrastructure, Republican District 36 senatorial candidate Kelly Armstrong said, adding the funding will help ease a lot of the tension.
"Oil and ag are very, very intertwined in that they're the same county roads," he said. "The more traffic the oil companies put on them obviously the harder it is -- especially during harvest and planting."
Getting pipelines and other oil-industry infrastructure in place will help remove those vehicles from the road, Armstrong said.
Another round of energy impact grants from the 2013 legislative session could help alleviate the stress placed on roads, Democratic District 36 Senate candidate Rich Brauhn said.
"Basically the roads are maintained by the county, so the money should really come back to the counties to take care of the deterioration of those roads and maintain those roads for the agriculture producers in our area," he said.
Oil and ag
One of the biggest issues meshing oil and agriculture are surface owner's rights, Barth said.
"In a lot of cases, the person farming the land is not the same person that is getting the dollars off that oil well," he said.
Brauhn agrees, saying North Dakota's 63rd legislative session will need to look into protecting surface owners.
"There has to be some kinds of abatement of those losses of production or other kinds of regulations that would prevent from major disruption of the ag production to give the surface owners some rights," he said.
Encouraging the oil and ag industries to work together by using eco pads, more than one well on each site, and land- and cost-saving solutions could be key to creating harmony between the two factions, Armstrong said.
By reducing the impact on the land, oil companies can appease surface owners while still utilizing horizontal drilling to tap into the oil beneath the crops.
"That friction is always going to exist to some degree or another," he said. "This has been an issue for many, many years."
Education for both sides is the best way to combat conflict and promote cooperation, Armstrong said.
Dust stirred up by oil traffic in rural areas has affected crops and herds, Brauhn said. The ideal solution would be to pave every road, but that is not financially feasible.
"We do need to have a hard surface that isn't going to break down and not become dusty," he said.
Dust legislation for oil companies could backfire and hurt the ag industry, Armstrong said.
"Over-regulation from the federal government hurts any industry that's dealing with the land," he said. "Even if it's targeted toward oil and gas or those types of areas, I think the law of unintended consequences has proven over and over again that it just doesn't affect the industry you're trying to regulate."
U.S. Congress went into August recess without passing the 2012 Farm Bill, which expires this year.
"We need to be aware that a good farm bill is more than just a price support and risk management for family farmers and ranchers," Barth said. "It's a lot bigger than that, there's many facets within the farm bill that can help North Dakota develop its agriculture products and develop and grow here in North Dakota."
The state Legislature can't actively pass the Farm Bill itself, but it can encourage North Dakota's congressional delegation to pass a good farm bill, Armstrong said.
"Pressure from the state Legislature on the feds to get a farm bill passed in the best thing we can do," he said.
If a farm bill doesn't pass or passage is delayed, the state Legislature could provide backup funds on an emergency basis to keep programs running, Brauhn said.
"I think the governor and the state Legislature should go on record in support of the farm bill and try to get it passed," he said.
In the last year, thousands of acres of Conservation Reserve Program have been pulled from the federally-funded program. Much of this is because the government can't afford to keep that land in the program, Armstrong said.
CRP is a voluntary program for agricultural landowners that allows them to receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish conserving covers on eligible farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As of June, there were roughly 2.4 million acres of farmland in the CRP program in North Dakota, according to the USDA. That same month last year saw 2.6 million acres, and 2010 had 2.7 million acres in the program.
North Dakota does have a similar policy, Private Land Open To Sportsmen, through the state Game and Fish Department, which could fill in for the CRP program, he said.
"Most of the farmers I know steward their land pretty well," he said. "I think there's room for expansion with the PLOTS program" but the cost would have to be examined closely to determine feasibility.
Either way, pulling land out of conservation could have dire consequences, Brauhn said.
"I do think the state should probably have some kind of plan to urge producers to keep some of their land back into natural grasses and take it out of production for a period of time just to maintain some habitat and maintain some balance," he said, adding he would advocate for the expansion of PLOTS to make up for CRP's shortfalls.