Avian flu tops Willmar roundtable discussion, but ag producers have many other concerns
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith heard a wide range of concerns about the farm bill at a roundtable discussion Monday in west-central Minnesota
WILLMAR — The return of avian influenza was top on the minds of turkey producers as U.S. Sen. Tina Smith , DFL-Minnesota, hosted a roundtable on the farm bill Monday in Willmar.
Producers are walking on “pins and needles” as the spring bird migration gets underway and a backyard chicken flock in Le Sueur County was recently confirmed to be infected by avian flu, the senator told reporters after the roundtable, which was held at the Willmar Poultry Testing Lab .
At the roundtable, turkey producers and others encouraged Smith to make sure funding is maintained in a new farm bill to help producers manage avian influenza and other diseases affecting livestock.
“I can’t imagine the stress of going to the barn every day and wondering: Is today the day?” said Thom Petersen, Minnesota Department of Agriculture commissioner. He was among those urging that the new bill continue funding for the teams and equipment to respond when flocks are infected, indemnification for producers experiencing loss, and mental health services for the affected.
John Zimmerman, a turkey producer from the Willmar area, told Smith that he once lost barns to a tornado and neighbors converged on his farm to help. That support network is not there for turkey growers whose flocks become infected by avian influenza, he said. Due to the risk of spreading the disease, they are “all alone” and without rural support network, he said.
Turkey producer Rob Orsten knows the challenges. His flock was infected in 2015. The barn sat for 10 days before a team arrived to depopulate it. All the birds were dead by that point, he said.
Now, there are teams and equipment ready to respond. In most cases, a team is on-site within 24 hours, 48 hours at the latest, he said. Producers have also invested heavily in bio-security measures since 2015, but he told the senator that doesn’t eliminate the stress they now feel as avian influenza returns and appears to be an endemic problem.
“There’s a lot of sleepless nights, especially when stuff starts to get close to you,” Orsten said.
Zimmerman said turkey producers are more open to the development of a vaccine for avian influenza, but noted that trade barriers remain a concern.
There were plenty of other issues on the minds of agricultural representatives. They expressed concerns about the rates for the Conservation Reserve Program. They charged that the favorable rates are leading some to enroll productive farm land in the program, and shrinking the pool of land available for young farmers to get started or for farms to expand.
The attendees also expressed frustration with the complexity, paperwork and expansion of requirements that come with many conservation and other programs meant to aid good stewardship of the land.
Smith said she hears the concerns about CRP and program requirements frequently. The senator said Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is aware of the need to simplify and streamline the processes.
Challenges in finding help will remain nonetheless. Whitney Place, Farm Service Agency director, told Smith about the challenges her agency faces in retaining and hiring employees.
“Huge issue for us,” Place said.
Last year, she saw a quarter of the agency’s staff leave. A starting salary of $36,000, unchanged in 20 years, makes it difficult to recruit new employees, she told the senator.
Labor challenges are major for ag producers as well.
John Anderson, of Belgrade, representing the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, was among those urging reforms to the visa program for foreign workers.
“Separating immigration from visa policy sounds like it should be fairly simple, but it never is,” he said in frustration.
Smith said she hears about the challenges of finding workers no matter where she goes, and no matter the industry.
Albert Rovira, interim director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Willmar, told her he lost two staff members and has not been able to replace them. “Labs are fighting with each other” for employees as the need for diagnostic work to protect against a wide array of animal diseases grows across the country, he explained.
Three-quarters of the nearly $1 trillion in spending the farm bill represents is directed to nutrition programs, according to Smith. She told the producers that she will be working to protect the programs that help farmers from being hijacked in the arguments over spending for nutrition programs.
She also expressed concern about keeping the farm bill from being used in the debate over the federal deficit. That debate could “inject a level of political-ness in the farm bill that is not going to help us,” the senator said.