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Watertown Daily Times - Owens Named to Ag Committee

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Location: Washington, DC

Watertown Daily Times - Owens Named to Ag Committee

Rep. William L. Owens was named Wednesday to the House Agriculture Committee to fill the slot vacated by former Rep. Eric J. Massa, D-Corning.

The assignment gives farmers from much of the north country their first representation on the farm policy committee in more than a century, as Congress enters the early stages of preparing the 2012 Farm Bill.

Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said he has the farm legislation in mind as well as more immediate business -- such as expanding a federal loan guarantee program for farmers -- as he begins work on the committee. He will be one of two New Yorkers on the panel, which is dominated by Southern and Western states.

"I think it's tremendous that we have that second voice on the committee," Dean Norton, president of New York Farm Bureau, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Mr. Owens said he plans to work with the other New Yorker, Rep. Scott Murphy, D-Glens Falls, and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to ensure New York has a voice on agriculture policies.

"The only way we can do that is by being effective negotiators on behalf of the district," Mr. Owens said.

The committee is in the early stages of reviewing farm policies in advance of the 2012 legislation, including what could be a major rewrite of the laws that determine minimum prices farmers are paid for milk, as well as the safety net that protects dairy farmers from big drops in milk prices. Field hearings on those issues already have begun.

Mr. Owens said he had no information about his subcommittee assignments; Mr. Massa served on the Horticulture and Organic Agriculture subcommittee, as well as one on conservation, credit, energy and research. Dairy policy, which dominates the 23rd Congressional District, falls under a separate subcommittee that also handles issues related to livestock.

Subcommittee assignments are handled by the committee chairman, Rep. Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., while the assignment to the overall committee was handled by the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.

Mr. Owens sought an Agriculture Committee assignment when he arrived in Congress last November. He said the Democratic Steering Committee contacted him after Mr. Massa resigned in March.

Although they are from the same state, and congressional committees often seek to maintain state-by-state balances, Mr. Massa's former district and Mr. Owens's district look somewhat different agriculturally. Mr. Massa represented vineyards and crop growers as well as dairy farmers, while the 23rd Congressional District's economy relies heavily on the milk business and is bound to be affected sharply by any changes in dairy policy.

Mr. Owens's stepping into Mr. Massa's seat may give the dairy industry a greater voice, said Jay M. Matteson, Jefferson County agriculture coordinator.

"It is a gain because he's very in tune with the dairy industry. That's where we need all eyes focused as far as our congressional delegation goes," Mr. Matteson said. "Across the nation, dairy has been devastated. Our dairy industry needs people on our congressional delegation that are very focused on dairy and can figure out ways to fix the problems and pricing that's going on."

So far, Mr. Owens has taken the predictable path on dairy policy, supporting subsidies that help farmers when prices fall below government targets and urging a close look at potential market manipulation by the industry's big players. He has met with north country farmers and appears willing to listen to their concerns, said Eric Behling, owner of Behling's Orchards in Mexico and New York Farm Bureau's district director for Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Oneida and Oswego counties.

More complicated questions could arise in the months ahead, as the committee considers replacing the subsidy program -- called the Milk Income Loss Contract -- with a new regime for protecting farm income. At the same time, milk processors such as Kraft Foods and Dean Foods will pressure committee members to avoid changes that push milk prices consistently higher.

New York Farm Bureau has not endorsed a particular approach but is likely to support some type of regional pricing system and greater oversight of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where just a handful of dairy product traders has a big influence on milk prices nationwide, Mr. Norton said.

"I think all things are on the table," he said.

Closer at hand, Mr. Owens is seeking changes in a federal farm loan guarantee program. He said the USDA's Farm Service Agency will not extend loan guarantees to farms where the land is owned by one entity, the business by another -- even if the names are the same.

Mr. Owens said that he is drafting legislation to ease that restriction, which would be handled by the Agriculture Committee, and that he has submitted it to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for review before formally introducing it.

Times staff writer Jude Seymour contributed to this report.


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