Montana Farm Bureau members participated in the American Farm Bureau’s Issues Advisory Committee meetings last week. The IAC meetings, generally held at the association’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., were held virtually this year due to pandemic restrictions. The meetings bring farmers and ranchers together from across the country to discuss issues of concern. MFBF has members on five committees: Animal Care, Environmental Regulations, Farm Policy, Federal Lands and Water.

Tonya Liles, a cattle rancher from Terry, was elected to serve as the chair of the Animal Care Committee.

“As my first year as chair, it had a few more challenges than it would have had for an in-person meeting, because on the virtual calls, everyone is either talking over each other or saying nothing,” noted Liles. “Still, I felt we accomplished a lot.”

The committee had several speakers focusing on timely topics including Danielle Beck, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, who gave a presentation on cell-cultured proteins.  “We discussed that the U.S. Department of Agriculture should regulate it,” said Liles. “We had a presentation on lawsuits that Farm Bureau is engaged in, and four are on animal care concerns. I talked about the bills in our legislature dealing with the transfer of bison from national parks to reservations and our concern that those bison need to be vaccinated and quarantined because of brucellosis. We will have another meeting in July to see if there are any pressing issues for counties to make policy on.”

Megan Hedges, who serves on the Farm Policy Committee, noted that their biggest conversation revolved around how farmers can be part of the solution. “Currently, farmers are often pointed out as being part of the problem. We need to show how our crop rotations, soil improvement and cover crops, to name a few practices, show we are part of the solution.” 

The Chester wheat farmer noted there were concerns about conservation compliance, especially with the upcoming farm bill. “We discussed that most farmers don’t have a problem with compliance until they have a problem. If you’re turned in or pointed out for lack of residue to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, there is no due process for the farmer. There needs to be a form of mitigation. Evidence and circumstance rarely are taken into consideration.  For instance, if we’re trying to grow a new crop and we suddenly get 50 mph winds, we might not have the best residue then. Most importantly, once one is found to be out of compliance, it is very difficult to get to a point where compliance is again approved, and in the meantime, it could be financially devastating to a farm or ranch.  All of USDA farm program payments are associated with being ‘in compliance, which includes Federal Crop Insurance subsidies and this year's CFAP payments.”

Hedges explained another concern about conservation compliance is that farmers are worried that unlike the incentive-driven programs implemented today to help with conservation, the NRCS will adopt a more “big stick instead of the carrot” approach regarding compliance.

Discussions in the Federal Lands Committee, consisting mostly of western state representatives, covered forest management and some of the executive orders.

Tom DePuydt, a Saco diversified farmer, noted, “There are several topics the committee is continually working on, one of which is forest management.  Every summer we can see the problem, smell the problem, and feel the problem of improper forest management with the large forest fires around the nation affecting our lives in one way or another.  The financial impact of these fires is huge with the cost of fighting these fires.”

He noted the committee discussed some of the policies and executive orders by the new administration. “At the moment, some of the executive orders are vague, such as Biden’s “30 by 30” conservation order, and we talked about how they might be implemented and what they really mean, so we will be watchful on many of those.”

Mike Murphy, a rancher from Wolf Creek and president of the Montana Water Resources Association, said the prevailing theme for the Water Committee was infrastructure and the resurgence of Water of the U.S. WOTUS was defeated and replaced with the Clean Water Rule. Farm Bureau worked hard on pointing out how detrimental WOTUS would be for farmers and ranchers. However, it appears WOTUS is now going to face a challenge under this Administration. 

“We talked about where WOTUS might be heading, as well as discussed the funding for infrastructure issues for agricultural water use, including irrigation,” said Murphy.
Murphy added that holding the meetings virtually, although successful in content, did not result in the same dialogue among members that an in-person meeting would have. “You get so much discussed with other committee members out in the hallway; that just doesn’t happen with virtual meetings.”