Welcome to the first quarterly “Boots on the Hill” report. While our members are busy working out in the country, Montana Farm Bureau has continued to attend interim committee meetings, virtually and is keeping up with what is being discussed in the legislature. We want to keep the members updated on legislation that may impact them! Keep an eye on your inbox for these interim quarterly reports and always feel free to reach out to your Montana Farm Bureau Legislative Team with questions.

State Government Affairs

By Rachel Cone

The second quarter of the 2020 interim year is coming to a close. With the Coronavirus still impacting the world and agriculture, there is no doubt that interim committees also kept this subject at the top of the list. Montana farmers and ranchers kept farming and kept ranching during the pandemic, and will continue to do so into the summer months.

From April to June, the interim committees started to look at how we will move forward from Coronavirus while understanding the impacts it has had and will have.

Board of Livestock

The Board of Livestock met multiple times via Zoom during this quarter. Some main topics of discussion include, per capita fees, the new Montana Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, and the expansion of the DSA. 

Throughout this quarter, per capita fees were discussed and reviewed. Overall, the industry did a good job getting their per capita fees returned on time to the department. The Board discussed the need for an increase in awareness to equine owners to pay per capita fees.

The new Montana Veterinary Diagnostic Lab (MVDL) planning is moving along as the Board has outlined the need and is currently deciding on the planning and funding. The Department of Livestock leadership has presented the different funding scenarios to industry groups – including the Montana Farm Bureau’s Board of Directors as well as the Montana Farm Bureau Livestock Committee. The Montana Farm Bureau Board of Directors voted to support the “50/50 split” scenario and during the Board of Livestock’s June meeting, it was voted to proceed with the “50/50 split scenario” which means half of the expense would come from the General Fund and the other half would come from per capita fees from the Department of Livestock.

There was a proposal for expansion of the DSA or Designated Surveillance Area in the Ruby Mountains in response to infected wildlife in the area. This proposal passed the Board of Livestock.

Water Policy Interim Committee

The Water Policy Interim Committee has been busy discussing the future of the Water Court along with Geocodes.

The future of the water court has been an ongoing discussion, as of now there is a Judicial proposal that encompasses four suggestions that would make the water court permanent. These suggestions are

  1. “Water Court review of DNRC permit and change decisions should be permanent and exclusive.”
  2. “The Water Court should have exclusive jurisdiction to decide the boundaries of Irrigation Districts.”
  3. “The Water Court should have concurrent jurisdiction to decide cases regarding ditch easements.”
  4. “The Water Court should have concurrent jurisdiction to administer its own decrees.”

The Water Policy Interim Committee has also been discussing Geocodes – which identify where a water right’s place of use is. The trouble found here is that the geocode shows where a water right sits but does not always outline the proper owner of the right. This brings up the issue of how records are kept as water rights are split or owners are changed. If the database for water right records is not up to date and accurate, we slow down many processes in Montana. The conversation on Geocodes has brought up the discussion on the record keeping of water right ownership updates and the issues faced in the updates process. After many working group discussions, a bill draft has been given to the committee and will be discussed at the following meeting in July. The working group outlines three recommendations. To limit the use of geocodes, add rules for the addition or deletion of owners, to increase speed or reduce delay and increase penalties. There should be legislation to provide a “correct and complete” update to ownership. And lastly, a list of recommendations for internal policies.

Rachel Cone works on State Government Affairs for the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. She coordinates various MFBF Advisory Committees and is the Treasurer for the Montana Farm Bureau PAC. Rachel can be contacted at (970) 646-8001 or rachelc@mfbf.org.

National Affairs

By Nicole Rolf

The first half of 2020 was dominated by COVID-19-related issues. Congressional focus shifted to coronavirus pandemic relief legislation. MFBF appreciates that agriculture has not been left out of these relief efforts and that a good deal of focus has been paid to the importance of our food system in this country.

COVID-19 Assistance for farmers, ranchers

In an effort to provide immediate assistance to farmers and ranchers who were suffering financially from low prices and reduced demand caused by coronavirus impacts, Farm Bureau advocated strongly for agriculture relief in the CARES Act. Subsequently, USDA developed the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) to provide relief to producers of all commodities adversely affected by coronavirus.

Food shortages, labor issues

MFBF took steps to maintain Montana farmers’ ability to obtain important inputs such as fertilizer, even with border closures. Farm Bureau kept pressure on the federal government to make sure needed workers were able to receive visas in order to enter the country for agriculture labor purposes. Farm Bureau also elevated the necessity of emergency transportation rules to ensure food could be grown for and delivered to consumers. 

Packer pricing investigation

MFBF was one of the first agriculture organizations in the state to call for a federal investigation into the difference between feeder cattle prices received by ranchers in the country and retail beef prices paid by consumers in the stores.  The USDA expanded their investigation into packer margins and the Department of Justice’s investigation as well. 

Meat process challenge during COVID-19

During the coronavirus pandemic a bottleneck was created at processing facilities when they were forced to shut down or reduce capacity due to sickness in the workforce.  On the national level, Farm Bureau was directly involved in helping reduce the bottleneck. AFBF President Zippy Duvall advised President Trump on his executive order establishing packing plants as critical infrastructure. President Duvall was able to advocate from a livestock producer standpoint about the importance of getting these plants back up and running, while keeping worker safety and animal health in mind.

MFBF took up the initiative of increasing processing capacity in our state. Miles Community College (MCC), the Montana Meat Processors Association and Montana Farm Bureau have teamed up to make a meat processing certificate/degree a reality.

Nicole Rolf is the Director of National Affairs and the Eastern Montana Regional Manager. She coordinates various MFBF Advisory Committees. Nicole can be contacted at 406-951-2429 or nicoler@mfbf.org.