The ball is already on the ground and rolling for the 2018 farm bill, and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., had his ear to the ground for those issues most on farmers’ minds during a visit to Sidney Sugars Wednesday, where growers talked about the increasing difficulties they face getting to a profitable harvest.
Daines made a swing through eastern Montana, starting off with breakfast in Malta and ending at the Wibaux County Courthouse. Prior to arriving in Sidney, he had visited United Grain in Culbertson.
Margins are getting tighter and tighter for the sugar beet farmer, and it’s making it harder and harder to remain in business, farmers told him. For example, sugar beet seed for the Jonsson farm cost more than Kjeld Jonsson’s first operating loan in 2000, he said. That’s not just because of the increased price for seed — which is up 2.2 times he estimated — but also because of how large a farm now has to be to remain profitable.
“My volume, my risk has gone up,” he said, “The equity position needed to shore that up gets to be dang thin, especially if you have any storms.”
What he’s hoping for most from the next farm bill is stability in prices.
“With fewer and fewer of us doing more and more, we need the stability to know where our ranges are,” he said. “We could easily go back a quarter million in a year. Used to, we’d go back maybe $20,000, and we had the land equity that could shore that up, but the scale now is just too large.”
Crop insurance is becoming more and more necessary to the survival of family farms, said Don Steinbeisser Jr.
“My grandfather didn’t even know what it was, much less use it,” he said. “Now if you have a bad year, you need it. The bank’s not going to ignore it.”
Another issue that’s pressing is the contentious national debate surrounding GMOs.
“Without GMO beets, there wouldn’t be a sugar factory,” Steinbeisser said. “No one would do it.”
With the weed control issues and labor problems that farmers are facing, GMO beets came along at just the right time, he added.
“The sugar industry would be very different without them,” Steinbeisser said. “If they take my GMO away, I may have to raise sheep or something.”
GMO beets have dramatically reduced both the number of different herbicides used and the overall amount that must be sprayed, he said.
“We used to put at least five chemicals in each tank mix,” he recalled. “It was a nasty cocktail, and you’d have to spray it four to five times. Now it’s two or three.”
One farmer estimated the amount as close to a 24-ounce bottle of pop, where before it was more like 3 to 4 liters.
That reduction is translating to fewer passes across fields, Steinbeisser added.
“We don’t have to work the ground three, four and five times to get rid of weeds and other things because of that,” he said.
Daines agreed these are important points to bring out in the debates.
“That’s a part of the discussion that’s being left out,” he said, “and you know where I stand on this issue on biotechnology. I am the only chemical engineer in Congress. The debate on GMO and biotech needs to focus on the science, not the political science. Unfortunately, it often becomes political science in Washington D.C.
Trade issues important too
Duane Peters, agricultural manager for Sidney Sugars, said they were happy with the reduction in Mexican sugar allowed in the country, but there are still some loopholes remaining. He is hopeful that can be closed soon.
“We don’t want to be at the mercy of other countries with sugar,” he said.
“Stability is the word, and that is what we need,” Jonsson agreed.
Steinbeisser wanted to know what the prospects are for TPP.
“I wouldn’t want to forecast that now, Don,” Daines said. “The debate on that will start again after the election when the partisan tempers have cooled down. I don’t know if it can get passed, but it’s very important for Montana agriculture.”
Daines led a delegation to China in late May, and among the first questions he asked was when would the ban be lifted on U.S. beef?
“That market is the second largest import beef market in the world,” Daines said. “It’s huge for Montana and the rest of American beef producers. We are very glad to see last week that they are removing the ban on U.S. beef. I am looking forward to beef showing up on Chinese plates.”
Daines said he would keep fighting for TPP and for Montana’s agriculture producers.
China is not one of the TPP countries, Daines acknowledged, but having a strong trade agreement with other Pacific countries helps put pressure on China to come to the table on trade.
“It’s part of the overall strategy,” he said, adding, “Agriculture is the foundation of our economy and our way of life, so it is very important for me to fight on behalf of our producers.”