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Farm bill roundtable highlights budget woes

FARGO, N.D. -- Agricultural leaders are worried the safety net for farm income will be trampled by federal budget warriors in what one official described a "sprint that's turned into a marathon" in the political effort to replace the 2008 farm bill.

A roundtable this week hosted by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, marks another start after a failed effort before Christmas. Then, congressional ag leaders sent a proposal to a bipartisan congressional Super Committee. They proposed budget cuts to the farm bill totaling $23 billion over 10 years, only to see the larger effort fail.

Still, Hoeven described the Super Committee proposal as a nucleus to build around. A freshman senator, Hoeven repeated that it is the goal of the congressional ag leaders to complete a new, multiyear ag bill this year.

The roundtable, co-hosted by Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., didn't shed much light on the process, or even what needs to be done. Hoeven said new Senate ag hearings on the farm bill may come in February, but he couldn't be specific. Berg said he'd know more after speaking to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Ark.

Hoeven says it's unclear whether Congress can build on the Super Committee proposal, or whether even more cuts are on the way.

Some privately say the opportunities to pass something are before a May recess, or before an August recess. If not, the current policy might be extended past the presidential election in November, only to be considered again in 2013 when the budget-cutting environment might be either better or worse.

Sandy Clark, a public policy director for the North Dakota Farm Bureau, asked whether Hoeven could arrange a Senate agriculture field hearing on the farm bill in North Dakota. Hoeven initially said "I would think so," but later seemed to say it was simply a possibility.

Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, also a Republican, recounted that he had gathered the state ag organizations in August to prepare a priority list for the federal farm bill. The centerpiece is a strong crop insurance program, as well as support for counter-cyclical revenue programs, disaster programs, research, trade and market access programs.

The Hoeven event was held Monday at North Dakota State University's new $35 million greenhouse complex and underlined research priorities for the farm bill. Scientists started occupying it in August. The facility was largely state-financed, but much of the work was indirectly supported by federal dollars, which also face cuts. None of the space is rented by private companies because of the demand by campus researchers.

NDSU President Dean Bresciani and Ken Grafton, vice president and dean of agriculture, stressed their concerns about continuing research funding so that the institution can capitalize on the investments the state and other federal and private partners have made.

Mikkel Pates writes for the Grand Forks, N.D.-based Agweek, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.