Ag Forum draws national ag leaders, congressional staff
About 200 people joined Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler at the second annual Agricultural Development Forum at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh to hear from Washington insiders and national ag leaders about what to expect when Congress begins debating the 2007 farm bill. With so much riding on this year's bill, interest by agriculture groups and farmers was high.
Featured speakers at the February event included U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Thomas Dorr, former U.S. Rep. and agricultural advocate Charles Stenholm, American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman and Bill Steel, president of The National Grange. Staff members from North Carolina's congresssional delegation also answered questions and spoke about challenges they expect to see.
Dorr outlined highlights of the Bush administration's 2007 farm bill proposal, which included proposals to increase fruit and vegetable purchases for school meals, increase funding for conservation programs, increase specialty crops grants and research, support development of alternative energy technology and provide financial support for beginning and young farmers.
"The 2007 farm bill is an opportunity to do something to reinvigorate rural America," Dorr said. The intent of the administration's proposal is to make farm bill programs "more predictable, more equitable, able to withstand review in trade and ensure wise use of tax dollars."
While several of the administration's recommendations could be beneficial to North Carolina farmers, agricultural leaders and congressional staff noted that finding the funds for all the programs will be a challenge.
American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman noted the varied interest groups now vying for consideration and funding in the bill among the challenges lawmakers face. "You have competing goals with conservation groups, hunger and nutrition groups, rural development, etc. There are lots of issues people want to lay on the farm bill," Stallman said.
Regional agricultural considerations were also cited as a challenge because recommendations that benefit farmers in the South may not benefit farmers in the Midwest. North Carolina lawmakers will need to build support with legislators from other states and regions for programs that may benefit farmers in their congressional districts. Education is the key, Stallman said.
"We need to tell our story," he said. "People who vote and have opinions today don't have a connection to agriculture."
Steel, the Grange president, agreed. "The challenge to educate our non-farming population is tremendous," he said.
Stallman and Stenholm agreed immigration reform that includes a viable guest worker program, facilitating trade, and developing reliable, renewable energy sources would be key issues for Congress to address this session. Stallman was encouraged about immigration reform because of comments President Bush made in his State of the Union address.
"Trade issues matter, but we have to have trade first," Stallman said. "We'd like to see increased access for agricultural products into other countries and markets."
During the afternoon panel sessions, staff members from North Carolina's congressional offices talked about renewable fuels and the opportunities they may present for N.C. farmers.
"The energy crisis is not going away and interest in renewable fuels is not going away with the rise and fall of gas prices," said Chris Wall, legislative assistant to Sen. Richard Burr. "Congress is bending over backward to see if we can reduce our dependency on fossil fuels."
Robert Harris, legislative assistant to Rep. G.K. Butterfield, said farm groups can help support the biofuels movement.
"Renewable energy is something America has to catch up on. We have to make our own fuel if we are going to sustain ourselves as a super-power nation," Harris said. "The farm bill isn't the avenue, but the ag community can certainly be a voice in letting (people) know we need to get on board with renewable energy."
The Agricultural Development Forum was hosted by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as a way to update growers on important industry issues.