WASHINGTON - U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., in a phone conference with agricultural media, said he is looking into why the U.S. Department of Agriculture has cut staff by a quarter in a time when demands on offices have increased.
Peterson, speaking to reporters from Minnesota and the Dakotas, on Sept. 25, said people in his district indicate that Farm Service Agency staffing declined by more than a fourth from 2004. "It looks to me that there's not adequate staffing," given increases in responsibility.
There may have been a problem in seeking budget authority but not appropriations support for adequate staffing, Peterson said.
He said a new issue is that some of the potential FSA county hires must go through a new, centralized "business center," which filters out some people county officials would like to hire. "The Republicans should be for local control," he said, referring to the Trump administration appointees who are running the department.
On a wide range of other topics, Peterson answered questions on:
• Ethanol waivers. The administration has been talking about doing something to change the effect of Environmental Protection Agency waivers, allowing small refineries to not comply with ethanol blends. The waivers have reduced markets for corn ethanol to 13.6 billion gallons, down from the 15 billion gallons promised by Renewable Fuel Standards. "That needs to be restored," said Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Peterson has sponsored a transparency bill, seeking to let Congress know why and when waivers are granted. Peterson says he thinks the administration wants a program that makes "biofuels happy and the oil companies happy," adding, "I don't think that's going to happen."
• Farm economics. In a recent briefing by Federal Reserve Bank officials in the Midwest, Peterson learned that the perception of farm economic health is that it is in "pretty good shape" but he thinks the effect of farm prices that are at the lowest point since 2010 will have an effect, especially in 2020. He says some people may not get financing for 2020, but that the percentage will be "single digits." "It's not a crisis at this point, overall," he said, but the "real test will be a year from now."
• Trade. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement approval in the House seems to be hung up, in part on "enforcement issues." He says the political turmoil over the impeachment process and calls for the resignation of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are getting in the way. He says he hasn't seen evidence of anything impeachable, and "at the end of the day" the Senate won't do it. He says the administration also has concerns about enforcement.
Peterson said he scheduled an hourlong meeting on Thursday, Sept. 26, with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, to discuss the USMCA and Chinese trade, which heavily affects U.S. soybean farmers. He said the meeting is to find out "what's going on." "I can't tell," Peterson said. "The president changes direction every day."
• Dairy. Peterson is frustrated by the Dairy Margin Coverage signup. He said only about 75% of the farmers in Minnesota who could sign up had done so by the deadline, which has been extended to Sept. 27.
He repeated that the program is a "no-brainer" because it guarantees at least break-even prices for the next five years. "I don't get it, why they're making these decisions" not to sign up. He said six months from now, he expects some to regret it.
Peterson said even a good support program may not be able to save some dairies that have suffered years of poor prices. He said the program could be a great help, however, for new dairy producers.
• African swine flu. Peterson says he's there is no assurance that a disease that has decimated Chinese hog production will be kept out of the United States, even though this is a high priority. He said the disease can live in meat for 30 days.
Peterson said researchers are six years from an effective vaccine for the disease. He says reports from southern Minnesota hog industry contacts who have visited China indicate that the disease may be worse than the Chinese have let on, and that more than 70% of that country's industry is affected, although others say it is less. He said Vietnam is also losing significant amounts of its hog herd.
• Election. Peterson said it's too soon to say how much the Trump campaign's investments in Minnesota will affect his race. He said it is ironic that Republicans are soliciting money from agriculture and other interests that support his campaign, and then will turn around and use those funds against him.