Montana Ag Summit brings agriculture’s heaviest hitters to Great Falls

Perhaps the greatest benefit Montana farmers and ranchers took home with them from the Montana Ag Summit was the national attention it delivered and a greater awareness in Washington, D.C. of Montana’s importance to the U.S. farm economy.

“We have two of the nation’s leaders; I would argue the nation’s top two influencers of ag policy with us here today,” said Montana Senator Steve Daines. “This is making a very deep impression on Sonny Perdue (U.S. Secretary of Agriculture) and Pat Roberts (Chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee).”

Daines organized and sponsored the two-day event, bringing together what was probably the highest profile delegation of U.S. ag leaders to ever assemble in Great Falls for a single event.

“This is outside the beltway, outside the D.C. nonsense,” Daines added. “They’re here, face to face with folks wearing ball caps and cowboy hats.”

Presentations and panel discussions carried on throughout the day, delving into topics as diverse as international marketing of Montana’s agricultural products and commodity futures trading as part of a balanced financial portfolio.

But the real draw, which brought in more than 700 farmers and ranchers from across the state, was the chance to listen to and even speak with two of the nation’s heaviest hitters when it comes to national farm policy.

“I’m a data-driven, facts-based, sound science decision maker who is absolutely impassioned and focused on customer service,” Secretary Perdue said during his keynote address to the audience. “When you have dealings with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I want to put a smile on your face that will make you say, ‘if that’s the kind of service I’m going to get I don’t mind paying my taxes.'”

Perdue was confirmed as Ag Secretary by the U.S. Senate on April 24. On Thursday he repeatedly emphasized his goal to make the Department of Agriculture more customer friendly, and to amend or eliminate federal regulations that hamper farm and ranch production in the U.S.

“We are right now at the USDA cataloging and categorizing all the regulations that are impediments to your production capacity,” he told the crowd. “We’re going to look at removing some of those, changing some of those so that when you get our of your pickup every morning you’re not afraid you’re violating some federal rule or regulation.”

Eliminating excessive federal regulation was a constant theme on Thursday, with frequent reference to reining in the Environmental Protection Agency and abolishing the Waters Of The United States (WOTUS) act, which extends the EPA’s clean water jurisdiction to small streams and wetlands across the United States.

“It’s pretty hard to deal with somebody who has an agenda,” said Pat Roberts (R-Kansas). “And the past administration, with all due respect, had an agenda. You’d go in to talk to some troop at some federal agency and you’d say, we need some relief here. We need to tweak this regulation or kill it because it doesn’t make sense.”

“But they had an agenda,” Roberts said of the Obama administration. “They’d just go right ahead and do it. That’s what happened with WOTUS, endangered species and a whole lot of other stuff. That’s changing now. That’s changing because of Sonny Perdue. That’s changing because of other secretaries and its changing because of President Trump. We’re fighting back.”

While there was widespread audience support for the rollback of burdensome government regulation, there was also deep concern about deep cuts proposed under the President’s budget to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Trump’s budget currently lops off 21 percent of the USDA’s budget and in some cases eliminates entire suites of programs and services.

The highest concern was for preservation of federally-subsidized crop insurance. Roberts repeatedly said that the President’s budget is merely an expression of his priorities, and that he would oppose any additional cuts to crop insurance funding.

“I don’t think we (the U.S. Senate) have seriously considered one since Reagan,” he said of passing a President’s budget without significant amendments. “When that proposal came over the transom to the Ag Committee and my staff was there, I said what did they do with crop insurance. ‘Well they cut it again and they want to means test it.’ I said just pick up the darn thing and throw it back over the transom.”

A second area of broad national concern is for the possibility of deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which is sometimes referred to as food stamps. The President’s budget proposes cutting $198 billion from the SNAP over the next 10 years.

Though he did not say he would oppose the President’s plan, Perdue did reassure the audience that the USDA would not be heartless when it came to food assistance for the poor.

“It’s not in the heart of America to see anyone go hungry and we don’t want that to happen,” he said. “The USDA will be compassionate as we administer that program (SNAP). On the other hand, I don’t think it ought to be a permanent lifestyle either.”

Another major theme of the summit was opening up bilateral trade negotiations to promote the sale of U.S. agricultural products.

President Trump’s first executive order upon assuming the Presidency last January was to withdraw the U.S. the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that was supported by many in agriculture because it lowered tariffs on U.S. ag exports to the Pacific Rim.

At the Montana Ag Summit, Perdue, Roberts and Daines each emphasized the importance of establishing new trade agreements with countries around the world.

Daines was recently a central figure in persuading the Chinese to lift a ban on the import of U.S. beef that had been in place since the BSE (mad cow disease) scare of 2004. He said that Montana ranchers can reasonably expect beef exports to China to rise substantially, both in the near term and down the road.

“What this gives us in China is a level playing field,” Daines said. “We can beet Brazilian beef, we can beat Australian beef because the Chinese recognize that the highest quality beef in the world is U.S. beef.”

“In the long term, China is the second largest beef import market in the world and growing rapidly,” he added. “This is about future cow/calf operations as we think about long term global competitiveness.”

“I don’t think there’s a single farmer that I’ve ever met that would rather have a government program than a good crop at a fair price,” Perdue said, linking reduced government subsidies to growing foreign export possibilities. “We (the USDA) have created a Secretary of Trade because we feel like, if you (farmers and ranchers) can produce, its our obligation to go find a market for it and sell it at a good price.”

Following Thursday’s Montana Ag Summit, Secretary Perdue is headed to Idaho. Senator Roberts and his wife will remain in Montana for an extra day to visit Glacier National Park.