Farmers receive a lot of attention from politicians during elections, but could be excused for feeling a bit neglected during the legislative sessions.
Senate leader Charlie Shields (R-St. Joseph) admits agriculture can get lost in the economic development mix.
“And maybe it’s not sometimes seen as significant as when you bring a huge manufacturing plant in, but the reality of it is it is a big chunk of the economy and there are a lot of jobs that are tied directly to agriculture,” Shields says.
Agriculture has had successes, mostly notably in the bio-fuels industry. Missouri has sunk tens of millions of taxpayer dollars into incentives to lure investment into ethanol and bio-diesel plants, reaching its height in Fiscal Year 2009 when $46.7 million in general revenue funds were budgeted for bio-fuel subsidies. Row crop farmers benefited. Grain prices rose, especially corn. The State Tax Commission concluded that the value of cropland rose significantly enough to raise its valuation, even as the commission proposed a decrease in the valuation of pasture ground. The legislature rejected the proposal and kept farmland valuations steady.
Other sectors haven’t been as successful. A House Interim Committee on Emerging Issues in Agriculture issued a report on January 27th of 2009. It has largely been ignored. A special House task force was formed in March of last year after the $27 million Cathy Gieseker grain fraud case in Martinsburg and the bankruptcy of Gallatin Grain Company came to light. A year later, nothing has been done. Task force members say they are waiting for a report from the State Auditor. A proposal to tap unused tax credits to help struggling dairy farmers passed the House last year, but died in the Senate.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Dan Clemens (R-Marshfield) doesn’t blame the legislature as much as an overall lack of understanding about what’s at stake.
“I just think that if there’s a failure, it’s not the legislature,” Clemens says. “It’s a general getting the message across from everybody.”
At times agriculture can’t even make it on the agenda. On February 24th, the House Agri-Business Committee heard seven bills; all various conceal and carry weapons bills. None dealt with agriculture.
House Speaker Ron Richard (R-Joplin) defends assigning the bills to Chairman Brian Munzlinger’s (R-Williamstown) committee.
“I sent the gun bills to him as a favor and I trust his judgment,” Richard tells the Missourinet, pointing out that Munzlinger was a lead sponsor of the conceal and carry law in Missouri.
“I’m glad the Speaker did send it to my committee,” says Munzlinger.
A move to help livestock producers passed the legislature, but fell victim to a line-item veto. Rep. Tom Loehner (R-Koeltztown) unsuccessfully pushed to override the veto of the Livestock Feed and Crop Input Loan Guarantee Program, which he said could have really helped pork producers.
“They’ve had two of the worst years in history,” Loehner says. “They had a chance through this bill to be able to guarantee a loan, to buy some corn up at harvest time, to fill these needs at a little bit cheaper price than what the market normally goes to, to try to get ahead of some of these costs.”
Loehner points out the program only guaranteed farm loans; it didn’t commit the state to loaning money.
Still, Governor Nixon used his line-item veto power to strip it from the budget.
“With the challenging resources that we have at this time, we want to make sure that the economic development tools that we have are used effectively and efficiently,” Nixon tells the Missourinet. “I think there are more efficient and effective ways to get the same output.”
State Agriculture Director Jon Hagler defends the veto. He says it’s difficult to start a new program during lean budget times. He says the governor has asked the Agriculture Department to expand existing programs to aid cash-strapped livestock farmers, such as the Single-Purpose Animal Facilities Loan Guarantee Program.
In wake of the veto, State Treasurer Clint Zweifel stepped up agriculture loans through the Missouri Link Deposit Loan Program, helping 1,000 farmers with $123 million in loans.
“I think one thing that I’m excited about long term is creating even more partnerships with the USDA and other loan-guarantee organizations that are actually providing guarantees on loans, so that we sort-of piggy-back on those opportunities to have a guaranteed loan, but also one that is a lower interest rate,” Zweifel says.
Despite such movement, Sen. Wes Shoemyer (D-Clarence), who farms in northeast Missouri, doesn’t believe state government does enough for farming, punctuating the point with an “emphatic no”. Shoemyer says agriculture doesn’t get the attention it deserves, noting the legislative response to various economic development projects.
“We’re very quick to find $50, 60, 70 million, somewhere, amazingly to get to those,” Shoemyer says, while lawmakers struggle to find $10 million for the Department of Agriculture.
We look into the future of farming when this series concludes tomorrow.