ND farmers support higher taxes for research

By: By BLAKE NICHOLSON, Associated Press Writer
By: By BLAKE NICHOLSON, Associated Press Writer

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Larry Neubauer likely will pay higher taxes on his wheat, barley and sunflowers later this year, but the North Dakota farmer is happy to do it.

Legislators are considering bills to continue or increase the "checkoff" farmers pay on their crops, from barley to sunflowers. Together, three bills in North Dakota would generate an estimated $2.8 million over the next two years.

Farmers say it's needed for research.

Larry Kleingartner, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, is one of the commodities experts who help plot research strategy for the Agricultural Research Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research arm. He said federal funding for crop research has dropped in recent years as Congress focused on such issues as food safety and the production of plant-based energy.

"(Farmers) are going to have to take more responsibility for where research is going and how it's funded if they want research to be done," Kleingartner said.

William Kemp, director of the Fargo Agricultural Research Service facility, said the nation's economic woes make federal money even more difficult to find.

"We struggle with the same kinds of problems any household does," he said. "We work to get the most out of every research dollar that's sent our way."

State Rep. Phil Mueller, who farms in the Valley City area, is a sponsor on all three checkoff bills in the North Dakota Legislature. He believes that if farmers do more to support their own industry, they will reap benefits down the line.

"I know what a better strain of barley does - it adds 5 bushels to my yield," he said. "I know what a better strain of wheat does. I don't have fusarium head blight (scab disease)."

Under the North Dakota proposals, the barley checkoff would rise from 1 cents to 2 cents per bushel. The sunflower rate would go from 3 cents to 4 cents per hundredweight and the flax levy from 2 cents per bushel to 3 cents.

The checkoff for spring wheat and durum wheat, which is used to make pasta, would remain at 1.5 cents per bushel rather than fall to 1.2 cents on July 1, when the three-tenths of a cent dedicated to the trade complaint debt is due to expire.

Checkoff increases take dollars out of farmers' pockets, though producers can ask for refunds on any crop except soybeans. A farmer who produces 50,000 bushels of barley would have to pay an additional $500 under the proposal. Someone who farms 2,000 acres of wheat would pay an additional $200.

The proposals have no organized opposition in the Legislature.

"It's harder for researchers to get public funding," said Jim Broten, a farmer from Dazey and a director of the North Dakota Barley Council. "And there's getting to be more and more needs. We realize as growers we have to support some of those needs ourselves."

Neubauer said durum farmers need a variety that takes less toxic cadmium from the soil and produces a healthier grain. "That's one of the main characteristics or properties different in (Canadian) varieties than what we have here," he said.

North Dakota Wheat Commission Administrator Neal Fisher said North Dakota State University spends about $8 million each year on wheat research, of which the Wheat Commission pays about 10 percent using checkoff dollars.

"These (crop) varieties have a life expectancy. You constantly have to be developing new varieties," Fisher said. "We don't want to be caught like we were a few years ago, when scab came on almost as a surprise."

Scab disease devastated wheat crops in North Dakota in the 1990s, costing farmers an estimated $2.6 billion in lost crops between 1991 and 1997, according to NDSU estimates.

"(Farmers) all understand the target is research," Neubauer, the Bottineau-area farmer, said of the legislative proposals. "I don't think there's a lot of concern from producers. New and ongoing research is something that's very much needed."

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