CANNON FALLS, Minn. — United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday, Aug. 12, said the federal government's programs to support farmers experiencing drought were insufficient to meet the moment and committed to working with lawmakers to approve additional aid.
The comments came after the secretary heard from Minnesota agriculture leaders about the drought's impact on the state. Vilsack got a first-hand look at the drought's impact on a southeastern Minnesota cash crop and cattle farm where grazing pastures had gone dry in the heat.
Agriculture industry leaders told Vilsack and elected officials that the situation in much of the state was dire as sale barns began closing their doors to livestock since they didn't have demand for additional animals. Farmers in drought-struck regions ran out of hay and grazing land to feed them.
"Producers are calling me and they're to the end," Minnesota Cattlemen's Association President Grant Breitkreutz said. "They have done everything in their power to save their resources, they've culled as far as they can ... the problem we have now is the sale barns are turning us away."
Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap stressed to Vilsack that the situation in Minnesota was urgent and every day without a life raft meant farmers had to keep seeking out expensive feed or deciding whether they could make it through given the hardship.
"The bottom line message is time matters in a drought. Whether it's time I have to wait before I sell my animals, I still have to feed my animals, I still have to haul the water," Paap said. "I appreciate your time but recognizing that not doing anything or waiting on things has a cost as well. Even CRP, every day you wait, it's worth less tomorrow."
Vilsack said the 2018 Farm Bill didn't equip the USDA for the current severe conditions affecting farmers around the country. And he committed to setting in place more climate change-related supports into the next Farm Bill. The secretary said visiting Minnesota and speaking with leaders helped him understand their perspectives. And he said he would take that feedback with him to Washington.
"The reality is our support structure isn't really designed for the challenges of today," Vilsack said. "Our system isn't really designed to provide the level of help and assistance for long-term challenges that farmers and ranchers and producers face."
Vilsack, along with Democrats U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Angie Craig, said they'd continue to urge farmers to take advantage of federal agriculture assistance, but they hoped to approve legislation freeing up the USDA's authority to open up Conservation Reserve Program lands in severe weather situations and putting in place additional supports.
And they stumped for the $1 trillion infrastructure proposal and a $3.5 trillion budget resolution up for consideration in Congress. Each contained policy changes and funding that could aid farmers, they said. Separate aid for dairy farmers and meat processors would also be made available soon through the USDA, he said.
"There's a lot of help on the way, there's a lot of opportunity to sort of hang on and there's a recognition and an understanding there's a recognition that in the long-term we need more flexibility for farmers," Vilsack said.
Craig, Klobuchar and Smith said they'd also convey the urgency of the need for support as they return to Washington and stump for aid and policy changes. And while they arrived at the farm during a brief rain shower, they said the sprinkle wouldn't disguise the ongoing problem.
"We have the Farm Bill with the work to be done as we see this climate crisis upon us but we also have the now and the now is what you hear from those cattle," Klobuchar said, as cattle mooed in the pasture. "We need to respond to that now because people need food and we want to make sure that Minnesota agriculture is strong."