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Fairgoers turn out for Back the Farm Bill Rally at the S.D. State Fair

Huron, S.D. (KELO AM) - A large number of fairgoers turned out Saturday at the Freedom Stage for a rally to show their support for a comprehensive, five-year federal farm bill. The Back the Farm Bill rally held during the State Fair was hosted by a diverse coalition of 22 South Dakota agriculture, business, energy, conservation and technology groups as well as the state’s largest network of charitable food banks.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and the administrator of the federal Risk Management Agency Brandon Willis were the featured speakers at the rally.

“As a member of the Senate, I hear you loud and clear,” Sen. Johnson said. “I share your frustration with how slow this process has been.”

Sen. Johnson said he was impressed by the large number of groups involved in the Back the Farm Bill coalition and the diverse interests the members represent.

“It goes to show that the farm bill impacts all Americans, not just farmers and ranchers,” Johnson said. “It’s incredible how this broad group of organizations, each with different and sometimes with competing priorities, can come together and advocate as one for passing a farm bill.”

The farm bill has been at a standstill since the U.S. House defeated a comprehensive bill on the floor in a close vote in July, but later passed a farm-only bill, leaving out the nutrition title that includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Senate passed its version of a comprehensive bill in June, and now the two chambers will have to work out the differences in the bill during a conference committee. It’ll take compromise from both parties to get a farm bill to the president’s desk, Johnson said.

“It supports millions of jobs across the country, provides a safety net to producers through effective risk management and feeds the hungry all while reducing the national debt,” Johnson said. “Not everything in the bill was perfect. Not everyone up here supported each individual piece of the bill, myself included. But that’s what compromise is all about. That’s what we have to do to develop a long-term farm bill.”

Administrator Willis said historically Congress has passed farm bills to keep up with changing times. Agriculture has changed dramatically since the first farm bill was passed in 1933 and it’s because of comprehensive legislation that Americans have a safe, affordable food supply.

“United States consumers pay the least amount of their income for food in the grocery store than consumers in any developed nation. That doesn’t happen by accident,” Willis said. “You combine a solid federal policy with the ingenuity of the hard-working American farmer and it’s led us to pretty good places. None of this would’ve happened without policy that keeps up with the time. Outdated policy will give us outdated results.”

The current farm bill extension expires Sept. 30 and Congress returns to the nation’s capital Sept. 9. The ‘Back the Farm Bill’ coalition has been working to educate the public about the importance of a comprehensive five-year farm bill while urging members of Congress to support the legislation’s passage. The coalition members have agreed to support five main points: The farm bill must be a compromise; another extension of the 2008 farm bill is not a viable option; the farm bill must contain a nutrition title; Congress should not repeal permanent law; and the U.S. House must name conferees to work out compromises on the farm bill.

“The Senate is ready to move forward,” Johnson said. “Our leadership has already selected members for the conference committee to work out our differences with the House bill. Unfortunately, the House, with its unwillingness to compromise has been dragging its feet and has refused to even send anyone to negotiate with the Senate about a final bill. The House needs to follow the Senate’s lead, drop the partisanship and act quickly. Let’s move forward, let us work out our differences and let’s get a farm bill.”

Leaders from groups involved in the Back the Farm Bill Coalition also spoke at Saturday’s rally, urging members of Congress to pass the farm bill before the current extension expires on Sept. 30.

“We’re all one today for one main reason, to get a farm bill passed,” said South Dakota Farmers Union President Doug Sombke. “Another extension is not the answer, we’re only moving backward if we do that. The farm bill needs a nutrition title because we have to support those who eat the food we produce, and permanent law is what makes Congress act. House conferees need to be named so we can move forward and get a bill passed.”

“It is the largest deficit reduction, bipartisan bill in Congress. It saves between $23 billion and $40 billion,” said Lisa Richardson, executive director of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association. “I don’t understand why the largest deficit-reducing bill that affects agriculture, South Dakota’s number one industry, is not passing Congress.”

The South Dakota Corn Growers Association joined the coalition to show a united voice, even though every group doesn’t agree on every detail of the farm bill.

“Collectively we don’t agree on everything, but we have to get a farm bill done or we all lose. Every South Dakotan loses,” she said.

Tom Hitchcock, the CEO of ethanol producer Redfield Energy LLC, said ethanol producers rely on the hard work of the state’s corn producers and he believes that a farm bill is vital to the ethanol industry. South Dakota’s 15 ethanol producing facilities that produce one billion gallons of ethanol each year.

“That’s more than twice the amount of gasoline that is sold every year in the state of South Dakota; that’s a lot of fuel,” he said. “South Dakota plants crush 360 million bushels of corn a year, that’s a lot of corn folks. Nearly one-third of that corn comes back as a high quality, high protein cattle and poultry feed.”

One of the most unique groups to join the coalition was Feeding South Dakota, the state’s largest network of charitable food banks. The group’s executive director Matt Gassen said they rely on the work of agricultural producers to feed the hungry in South Dakota.

“It’s because of that partnership and relationship we have with the farmers and ranchers in the state of South Dakota; the people who are working every day to feed not only the hungry people of South Dakota but the people of the world,” Gassen said. “We too believe and know the importance of passing a farm bill, especially the nutrition portion. The fact that this group was willing to put the nutrition title as part of their five main points to support speaks volumes about where their hearts are, not only in the work they do every day, but in the people they’re trying to help support.”

Gassen said as much as 50 percent of the recipients of nutrition assistance in America are children, and another 10 to 20 percent are older citizens.

“We understand that everyone needs to play their part, but we also want the representatives in Washington, D.C., to understand that we’re dealing with a segment of the population that many of whom cannot do anything about the situation that they’re in.”

Mike Stephenson with Pheasants Forever discussed the importance of conservation provisions in the farm bill and the impact it has had over the years on wildlife production.

“We understand that agriculture and conservation are critical in our state, especially for our economy,” he said. “As we have more acres coming out (of conservation programs) we’re seeing less wildlife habitat available. We need a farm bill, and we need to get it done. It doesn’t matter if you’re a hunter or a fisherman, a grower, a feeder or an eater, everyone is involved in this.”

A question many people not familiar with the details of the farm bill have is why nutrition programs are coupled with farm programs in the legislation. Sen. Johnson explained that the farm bill needs to include both nutrition and farm programs because of the political reality of fewer people in rural America.

“Because there are fewer and fewer planters and growers in the United States and there are more people who are urban oriented and they don’t understand and they don’t support the farm bill as a standalone bill,” Johnson said. “So for practical reasons we united those two together and it makes all the sense in the world, or else we would have no chance at a farm bill.”