Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and his larger-than-life image blew into Washington last week. In addition to talking up his new book and introducing himself around town, Ventura conducted business on Capitol Hill and at the Agriculture Department, preaching his gospel of the free market and strictly limited government.
Ventura, the former professional wrestler who won the governorship as a member of the Reform Party last year, testified before the House Agriculture subcommittee on livestock and horticulture and met for about 45 minutes with Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to talk about the plight of the Midwestern farmer and federal dairy policy.
"We have some very archaic laws that are still in effect that are handcuffing and destroying the dairy industry in the Midwest," Ventura said.
Ventura, who quickly acknowledged that the extent of his farming experience consisted of eating tomatoes from his mother's vegetable garden, pointed to the "Eau Claire situation" as the prime example of outmoded federal dairy policy.
He said current USDA policy increases the minimum prices that milk handlers must pay producers based on the producer's distance from Eau Claire, Wis., a policy he said should be ended in favor of a return to the free market. Barring that, Ventura said, Congress should back the USDA's pending "final decision" plan that would reduce the number of regions with different minimum-price levels.
The House Agriculture Committee plans to examine a bill on Wednesday sponsored by Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that would alter the USDA's plan and maintain greater price differentials than the USDA wants. The Senate may weigh in soon as well, with senators whose states could see their minimum milk prices drop looking to scuttle some action.
In addition to talking dairy during his visit, Ventura argued that agricultural issues should take center stage at the upcoming meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.
"So many times [agriculture] is put on the back burner, and it's like a throw-in item at the end," Ventura said. "It has to have front-burner status. Opening up the markets is very important. I think our farmers can compete if they are given a level playing field."
CORPORATE HOG FARMS: They are words that strike fear into the heart of family farmers and stir anger in the belly of environmentalists.
Representatives of both groups recently convened in Washington to compare notes about the explosive growth of the huge farms--both hogs and other livestock. Another goal of the meeting was to press Agriculture Department and Environmental Protection Agency officials to address the issue with new environmental regulations and stronger enforcement of current environmental law, partic- ularly the Clean Water Act.
Meeting attendees, however, said much of the action on hog farms is taking place in state legislatures. State lawmakers are grappling with the issue of corporate farms that produce massive amounts of fecal waste, which can foul the air for miles around and has been tied to contaminated water in several states.
Missouri recently adopted legislation regulating odor levels produced by these "confined animal feeding operations," and North Carolina is considering similar legislation. Other states may follow.
"North Carolina was sort of assaulted by the hog industry before anybody else," said Ken Midkiff, director of the Missouri Sierra Club, an environmental group that helped sponsor the Washington meeting. "Other states are sort of looking to North Carolina because they have such a tremendous problem. Minnesota is trying to get ahead of the curve to prevent some of the problems from occurring, and we are sort of playing catch-up in Missouri."
Environmentalists and small farmers also were looking for the USDA to come up with updated standards that recognize phosphorous, a byproduct of the animals' waste, as a contributor to water pollution.
The department is scheduled to come out with a timetable for issuing the new standards in September.
CAPTION: Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura drinks a glass of milk while appearing before a House Agriculture subcommittee to discuss reforms to federal dairy policy.