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Heitkamp, USDA hear concerns on compliance requirements

Robert Bonnie, right, USDA under secretary for natural resources and environment, addresses attendees at a roundtable discussion on conservation compliance being tied to crop insurance. Also pictured are, from left, Eric Lindstrom from the Ducks Unlimited Government Affairs office in Bismarck, Keith Trego from the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, Tom Brusegaard from Sen. John Hoeven’s, R-N.D., office and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

VALLEY CITY, N.D. — Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., led a roundtable discussion Wednesday at the Valley City State University campus for farmers to voice their concerns on the conservation compliance requirements being tied to crop insurance payouts in the 2014 farm bill.

Heitkamp was on a 12-member panel, which included U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Robert Bonnie, who oversees conservation requirements, and USDA State Conservationist Mary Podoll.

Heitkamp said she’s heard from a number of farmers who’ve faced serious challenges in complying with the existing conservation requirements related to wetlands, and she and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., fought hard to keep the requirements from being tied to crop insurance as the bill was being finalized.

“We knew we were going to confront this issue, and so as the bill was worked through and as these conservation groups came together with the commodity groups … we had pretty much every major commodity group and every major farm group including the (North Dakota) Farm Bureau and the (North Dakota) Farmers Union, who supported this nationally,” Heitkamp said. “And so it was really apparent in many ways that North Dakota was an island trying to fight this, trying to explain why it is that we feel strongly in representing our state that we need to have a broader discussion.”

Heitkamp said North Dakota has become the poster child for maintaining flight paths for migratory birds. Acreage in the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers and ranchers for pulling land out of agricultural production to create wildlife habitat, has been steadily declining throughout the state. North Dakota has more land in the Prairie Pothole Region than any other U.S. state, and Mike Brandenburg, a farmer in LaMoure County, said the states in the region are held to a higher standard for conservation.

“We’re being treated differently than the rest of the country,” he said. “We know that we’re the last stronghold, we know that they (environmentalists) are digging in and the environmentalists are winning … This is the beginning of much more enforcement and your (farmers’) life is going to be impacted.”

Conservation enforcement was another topic many farmers took issue with. Jim Broten, a Barnes County farmer, said he can remember a time decades ago when it was almost fun to receive a visit from Natural Resources Conservation Service officers. Now, he said, they have become confrontational with farmers.

“We need to be working together, and right now in North Dakota all the grower’s organizations came out against this plan (to link compliance with insurance) because you know that it’s confrontational,” Broten said. “I’ve had fish and wildlife people come to my farm with loaded pistols … That intimidation doesn’t make you any friends and you really, really have to work on that if we’re going to be working together.”

Heitkamp said “all of this attitude that the farmer is our enemy” among some conservation workers needs to change. Bonnie said voluntary participation of farmers in conservation programs is the “bread and butter” for NRCS and the relationships between farmers and NRCS need to be “maintained and improved.”

Panel member Tom Brusegaard, who was sitting in for Hoeven, said there’s a “culture of fear out there” among farmers when dealing with NRCS.

“Every farmer out there knows somebody who got a nasty-gram in their mailbox that said, ‘You screwed up and you owe the government $500,000,’ and so now people are even scared to ask — they’re too scared to go to the NRCS office and say, ‘I’ve got this problem, what do I do about it,’” Brusegaard said. “They’re afraid that they’ll be told, ‘well not only can you not do anything about that problem, but we found something else that you did do something about and now you owe us a lot of money.’ … I think it’s important for the secretary to understand that that’s the challenge we face in the Prairie Pothole Region.”

Another bone of contention is what constitutes a wetland under the compliance policy. Panel member and farmer Eric Broten, who was sitting in for North Dakota Soybean Growers Association President Jason Mewes, said he recently went through an on-site wetland determination on a dried-out area on his land with NRCS and said the determination was “sketchy.” Another complaint came from Barnes County organic farmer Josh Olson who said it took three years for a wetland on his property to get entered into the Wetland Reserve Program, which Bonnie and Podoll said was mostly due to understaffing.

Heitkamp said she knew many farmers care deeply about wildlife conservation, but they also have to make a living.

“We will continue to have this discussion,” she said. “We will continue to try and connect your frustration with the people at the top so they can begin to understand and appreciate that these relationships need to be fixed, and they need to be fixed very quickly in order for us to continue to work together to solve these problems.”

Sun reporter David Luessen can be reached at 701-952-8455 or by email at dluessen@jamestownsun.com

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