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Candidates for N.D. agriculture post differ on solutions

The two candidates for North Dakota's top agriculture post believe the state is lagging in developing value-added ventures. They agree the state's farmers are saddled with too much financial risk in growing crops. And they say the United States s...

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The two candidates for North Dakota's top agriculture post believe the state is lagging in developing value-added ventures.

They agree the state's farmers are saddled with too much financial risk in growing crops.

And they say the United States should not trade away its sugar production.

Their consensus largely ends, however, when they begin talking about ways to address the challenges facing North Dakota's agriculture industry.

Much of the blame for North Dakota's sluggish efforts at diversifying its farm economy rests with the state Legislature, incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson said.

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Johnson, 51, a Democrat, is seeking his third term. The position earns $69,874 annually.

Originally from Turtle Lake, Johnson farmed until he was elected agriculture commissioner in 1996.

He is challenged in the November election by Republican Doug Goehring, 39, a Menoken farmer and president of Nodak Mutual Insurance Co.

"The Legislature is far too conservative in investing and creating a business environment that promotes growth in agriculture," Johnson said.

"To just say you're for agriculture isn't enough. What are you going to do to promote it?"

During the last legislative session, the state's lawmakers killed a proposal that would have required the state's fuel outlets to sell diesel blended with biodiesel, an additive produced from soybeans, Johnson said.

They're sending the wrong message," he said. "I'm going to continue to work with the Legislature to get them to do more."

Johnson and Goehring said the state's economy could grow by expanding the development of cattle feeding, crop irrigation and farm-based processing ventures such as ethanol production.

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"We can do better," Goehring said. "We have enormous opportunities in agriculture today."

If the Legislature is sending the wrong message, Johnson is sending mixed signals, Goehring said.

Johnson has criticized a state program that offers all farmers low-interest loans to diversify their operations or to invest in agricultural processing ventures, Goehring said.

Offered through the State Bank of North Dakota, the Ag PACE program provides farmers with as much as $20,000 in subsidizes to cover interest on loans.

The Legislature funded the program with about $1.4 million for the 2003-05 budget period.

Johnson said Ag PACE should be reserved only for farmers who can't otherwise afford an expansion project or buy stock in an agricultural processing venture.

"I don't see the public- policy purpose of giving 1 percent money to a multimillionaire," Johnson said.

Goehring believes all farmers, regardless of their financial means, should be able to use Ag PACE.

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All farmers who use the program are helping to grow the state's economy, he said.

Johnson voiced concerns about the Ag PACE program this summer, when Bank of North Dakota officials proposed expanding it to provide any farmer with up $60,000 in subsidies for loan interest.

"The state doesn't have a bottomless pit of money to hand out," Johnson said. "You have to ask yourself if the money is getting into the hands of those who need it."

Johnson said several millionaire farmers have used the program.

As agriculture commissioner, Johnson is a member of the state Industrial Commission, which oversees the state-owned Bank of North Dakota.

Weather extremes, from flooding to drought, have damaged crops throughout the state this summer and have emphasized the need for insurance reform, Goehring and Johnson said.

Johnson said he's working with other state agriculture commissioners to build a coalition supporting crop insurance reform.

Instead of providing insurance that covers some crop losses, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency should offer a program that covers farmers' production costs, Johnson said.

The whole-farm approach would offer more predictable protection than current insurance plans that vary from crop to crop, he said.

Goehring, president of the largest domestic insurance company in North Dakota, proposed an insurance plan based on farmers' adjusted gross revenue.

Coverage would fill the void left by traditional crop insurance plans, he said.

Johnson said his other priorities include working with other states to craft recommendations for the next farm bill and expanding the state's livestock industry.

Goehring said the Agriculture Department, under his leadership, would work closely with local economic development offices to spur agricultural growth.

He said he also wants to establish a mentoring program to help beginning farmers and established farmers stay profitable.

Johnson is one of four state officeholders running for a two-year term instead of a four-year term.

The secretary of state, agriculture commissioner, attorney general and tax commissioner offices will revert to four-year terms with the 2006 election.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Zent at (701) 241-5526

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