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Rep. Chellie Pingree of ME and Rep. Bill Owens of NY at the US Farm Bill hearing in Saranac Lake. Photo: Julie Grant
Rep. Chellie Pingree of ME and Rep. Bill Owens of NY at the US Farm Bill hearing in Saranac Lake. Photo: Julie Grant

North Country farmers testify before Congressional committee

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Agriculture took center stage in Saranac Lake on Friday as the U.S. House of Representatives held the first of four nationwide hearings on the 2012 Farm Bill at North Country Community College.

Labor issues, marketing, crop insurance and the price of milk dominated the three-hour session, which was held by the House Agriculture Committee. The hearing's aim was to gather input as federal lawmakers prepare to reauthorize the Farm Bill later this year. The last farm bill, in 2008, cost $288 billion.

The committee heard from two panels consisting of dairy, beef and specialty crop producers. Chris Morris reports.

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Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent

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House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma, kicked off Friday’s hearing by explaining why Congress hosts these forums.

“Field hearings are one of the most important parts of the

Farm Bill process,” said committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Oklahoma. “Not only do they allow the members of our committee to hear directly from farmers and ranchers, but they give us a chance to see the diversity of agriculture across this great country.”

Other members of the committee were more direct in emphasizing the importance of the hearing and putting together a strong Farm Bill.

Chris Gibson is the Republican who represents New York’s 20th Congressional District.

“No farms, no food,” said U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook. “We need to get this right; otherwise, we’re going to end up guarding food overseas.”

The panels represented a wide range of producers, from dairy farmers and organic beef producers to grape growers and apple orchards.

Lucas said it was fitting to host the hearing in New York because it’s among the top five states nationwide in apple, wine, grape, vegetable and dairy production.

One of the top issues discussed at the hearing was crop insurance.

Adam Sullivan, of Sullivan Orchards in Peru, told the committee his orchard participates in the federal crop insurance program, which involves private insurance companies. He underscored the importance of the program with a story from his childhood.

On a Saturday afternoon in 1983, a storm hit Clinton County, Sullivan said. The initial hail from the storm caused some damage, and Sullivan’s father inspected the crop and found it salvageable.

“Then 5:30 came, and the real storm began,” an emotional Sullivan recounted. “I don’t remember how long it lasted, but I remember him staring out the window with my mother consoling him. “It was determined that a tornado landed less than a mile away and pummeled the apples. I was six. The crop was severely destroyed, but mom and dad were only able to sell a load of juice. That year’s crop fermented on the orchard. The real kicker was they didn’t have crop insurance. It took them more than a decade through hard work and God’s good will, but they got the orchard financially secure again.”

Sullivan said insurance will never make a farmer “whole” following a natural disaster, but the program does allow producers to maintain their livelihoods.

On labor issues, most of those who testified said guest-worker programs like the H-2A visa have helped, but are in need of reform.

Ralph Child is a seed potato and leafy greens producer from Malone.

“The H2-A program has allowed me to have … continuity from one year to the next without concerns from enforcement from immigration,” he said. “But the administration, through the Department of Labor, has been quite difficult. There’s a lot of hoops to jump through. And it’s been really frustrating the last couple years, where the rule changes from one year to the next make it quite difficult.”

North Country Congressman Bill Owens asked if farmers would support a program that would let illegal immigrants get a work visa.

Child said he might, as long as it didn’t provide for a fast-track to citizenship.

“I think there should be a provision to give these people that are currently here, illegally or not, the opportunity to stay and work in the country. They are doing the jobs that most Americans choose not to do.”

The hearing also zeroed in on the “eat local” movement and the increase in the number of small farms. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine, said more young people in her state are taking up farming, and that’s led to an increase in production.

Michele Ledoux of the Adirondack Beef Company in Croghan told the panel that consumers want to know more about the food they’re eating.

“People truly want to know where their food is coming from,” Ledoux said. “They want to talk directly to that farmer, they want to look them in the face, and they want to say, ‘I bought this product from you. I want to know that you grew it, you raised it and you took care of it from the beginning to where it was processed.’ Whatever that is, whether it’s vegetables or it’s meat, they know you were the one that was involved in it.”

Ledoux said community outreach programs let farmers make that connection with consumers.

Friday’s hearing was also a chance for members of the public to watch the federal government in action. That’s why Roger Miller, a government and economics teacher at Chateaugay Central School, brought a group of juniors and seniors to check out the hearing.

Miller said a lot of people don’t hear about a bill until it goes to the president for a signature.

“It certainly was eye-opening for them,” he said of the students. “Admittedly, it was a little dry for some of them. But I’m into policy, so I had a great time today.”

Junior Sarah Gardner said she was most interested in the stories some of the farmers told.

“Agriculture is very important in this area,” she said. “I think it’s good for them (the panel) to hear the local perspective.”

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