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Heitkamp: How I'm gearing up to fight for a strong farm bill

CLEVELAND, N.D. Brushing aside cattails and wading into a wetland last week, I thought about how Congress would work better if members got out in the field more. In this case, it was farmer Denny Ova's field. He and his family grow wheat and corn...

CLEVELAND, N.D.

Brushing aside cattails and wading into a wetland last week, I thought about how Congress would work better if members got out in the field more.

In this case, it was farmer Denny Ova's field. He and his family grow wheat and corn near Cleveland, including on acres enrolled in a Delta Waterfowl pilot project I wanted to learn about up close. The program gives farmers incentives not to drain wetlands, protecting duck habitat while still allowing producers to farm their land.

Now that farmers face conservation compliance requirements for crop insurance, I wanted to hear from Denny to see if this more reasonable approach to conservation was working-and to see if it could be a solution to the conservation compliance conflict in the next farm bill.

This visit was one stop on my two-day, statewide farm bill tour, which took me from Buxton to Mandan to Chaffee, hearing from farmers about how provisions I fought for in the 2014 farm bill are working for them.

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The tour also laid the groundwork for improving the farm bill in 2018. As a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, I knew I needed to gather feedback directly from producers and see their challenges firsthand before fighting for the farm bill our state needs.

The farm bill is vital for rural America, supporting 16 million American jobs and strengthening rural communities. My statewide tour centered on my top priorities in the next farm bill: providing a strong safety net through crop insurance, promoting research, expanding exports, and maintaining the sugar program.

The first stop was Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in Mandan, where I joined U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers to see their work studying soil health, from nutrient levels to wind erosion.

Smart federal investments in research pay dividends for rural America. For a century, USDA researchers in Mandan have been gathering invaluable data at their lab to make agriculture more efficient. North Dakota is fortunate to have three USDA research labs in addition to the research done by our land-grant universities, and it's critical to continue funding that long-term investment.

After stopping at the Ovas' farm to talk about wetlands, I drove to the North Dakota Farmers Union in Jamestown to check in with farmers and state agricultural group leaders. Our conversation centered on crop insurance and Title I safety net programs, which I fought to strengthen in the 2014 farm bill.

The next day, I got an early start in Buxton, dropping in on bean growers at Central Valley Bean Co-op to get a glimpse of how they process, bag, and ship their beans around the world-including to markets as far away as Chile and Brazil.

When 95 percent of consumers live outside the U.S., accessing foreign markets is a key to success. That's why I spoke with bean growers about maintaining and possibly expanding farm bill export promotion programs, so we can encourage countries around the globe to buy our high quality agricultural products.

And those programs have a high rate of return. Studies from Texas A&M and Cornell University economists since 2002 have shown that for every $1 invested in these programs, there's a return ranging from $24 to $35. For dry beans, that return is even higher.

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The most recent Texas A&M study shows U.S. export market development programs added an average of $2.1 billion per year to net farm income since 2002.

From Buxton, I headed down to the Levos family's farm near Chaffee, where I met with young farmers, sugar growers and folks from American Crystal Sugar. Rain prevented us from getting out into the field to lift beets, but we shared a great conversation (over some delicious 4-H brats and Levos-grown sweet corn) about crop insurance, the sugar program and what Congress can do to support the next generation of farmers and ranchers.

Talking with Brett Levos, a farmer who's just starting out on his own, reminded me that even as I plan for 2018, we need to look ever further. How do we guarantee Brett's children can make a living on the farm, sustaining a thriving rural American and feeding the world, just as Brett plans to?

Those are big questions, but my first step in answering them was clear: head to the farm, get my hands a little dirty, and listen to producers.

Now I'm ready to take what I learned-as well as a healthy dose of North Dakota common sense-back to the U.S. Senate as I prepare to fight for the robust farm bill our state needs.

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