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Franken: New farm bill should address dairy struggles

FARMINGTON, Minn. — U.S. Sen. Al Franken ranked dairy farmers' struggles among his top priorities for a new federal farm bill

Franken, a Democrat, met Tuesday with Minnesota Farmers Union members from six southeastern Minnesota counties to discuss priorities for a new federal farm bill. The current bill, enacted in 2014, will expire next year.

"The biggest takeaway is that we have an urgent situation for our dairy farmers here that needs to be addressed as quickly as possible," Franken said after the meeting. "I did hear some stuff on supply management and dairy. ... We're just seeing very, very low prices and that seems to be something that needs to be addressed in the next farm bill."

Dairy farmers with the union say shaky trade relations with Canada have contributed to a shrinking number of companies that will buy their milk to use in their products.

Bruce Miller, outreach and membership director with the Farmers Union, said a clear solution to the issue has yet to surface.

"It's really clear that there has to be a safety net, but what comprises that safety net?" he said. "Is the dairy management, is it production limits, or better relations with trade partners like Canada? ... How does a farm bill begin to address that? It has to, but I'm not sure there's any clear mechanism of how that takes place yet."

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the new farm bill, Franken and Miller agreed that Minnesota farmers need a public option for healthcare coverage.

Miller described "horror stories" families have told him about premiums and deductibles exceeding $40,000 annually.

"If you have to pay off $43,000 each year, that's not even a benefit anymore, that's just a penalty," he said. "Because farming is supposedly the second-most dangerous career in the world, do you dare not have health insurance?"

Franken criticized a bill that recently failed in congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, calling it a "crazily bad" bill.

The Affordable Care Act, Franken said, was imperfect, and farmers bore the brunt of the cost.

"I really think the big message out of this was, that only 5 percent of Americans get their healthcare through these federal exchanges, but when you're one of them, it's 100 percent," Franken said following the meeting. "Right here in this room are a lot of the people paying the price for federal exchanges, of being undermined so much."

Franken also emphasized the need to expand broadband infrastructure.

A Farmington resident at the meeting said she gained high-speed internet access for the first time two months ago.

Internet access, Franken said, is necessary for Minnesota farmers to compete on a global market.

"This is the rural electrification issue of this century," he said. "Everybody should have broadband. This is education, this is about business. You should be able to do business anywhere."

After the Farmington meeting, Franken met with Rosemount volunteers who deliver meals to senior citizens. The discussion focused on proposed federal cutbacks to senior nutrition programs.

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