Minnesotans raise questions on future farm bill
WILLMAR, Minn. -- With the current farm bill set to expire in 2018, work is underway to gather ideas about what to include in the next version from people who live with the consequences.
WILLMAR, Minn. - With the current farm bill set to expire in 2018, work is underway to gather ideas about what to include in the next version from people who live with the consequences.
On Tuesday nearly 80 people, including farmers, commodity group representatives, elected officials and community leaders offered their ideas to staff members from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's office.
In a video presented to the group, Klobuchar said her goal as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee is to develop a "strong safety net" with a farm bill that "works better for farmers and consumers" in Minnesota and across the country.
President Trump's decision this week to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership drew concerns from Pat Lunemann, a dairy farmer from Clarissa and chairman of Minnesota AgriGrowth.
"One day out of seven, the milk production in the United States is exported," Lunemann said.
If milk exports were stopped, he said that would mean one cow out of every seven would disappear, or one dairy farm out of every seven would go out of business.
He predicted that situation would hit small dairy farmers the hardest.
"We need to have strong exports and strong trade," Lunemann said.
Greg Jans, an area dairy farmer, said because nearly 50 percent of the dairy cows in Minnesota are milked by foreign labor, immigration reform is needed to help fill a labor shortage on farms.
Tom Haag, from the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said he is concerned about "rumors" that crop insurance could be eliminated from the farm bill. Given low commodity prices, Haag said crop insurance "needs to be maintained," especially for younger farmers in greatest need of a safety net.
Haag encouraged passage of a 15 percent ethanol blend with gasoline, saying "we'd be doubling the amount of corn and ethanol we use in our own state."
Almost all gasoline in the U.S. is blended with 10 percent ethanol currently, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Issues of conservation were addressed, including increasing the cap on the number of acres that can be enrolled in conservation programs.
One participant said because of precision farming methods, farmers can more easily identify marginal land to enroll into conservation programs in an effort to reduce water and soil erosion, but acreage limits prevent that from happening.
Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen said if there was more flexibility in rules between federal and state conservation programs, like for funding of buffer strips, fewer farmers would be excluded and more could participate in conversation practices.
Increasing transportation, workforce housing and broadband internet services, which are crucial to farm operations and quality of life for rural communities, were also cited as needs. Concerns were raised as well about rising health insurance costs for self-employed farmers.
Dan Tepfer, from Kandiyohi Power Cooperative, praised improvements in the application process for the Rural Energy for America grant program that helps fund renewable energy and energy conservation actions.
But he said much of the "low-hanging fruit" for on-the-farm energy conservation measures, such as replacing inefficient grain dryers, has already been done and there needs to be more guidance and definition for eligible improvements.
He said farmers "want to do the right thing" to increase energy efficiency but are "hobbled" by cash flow issues that could be offset with the Rural Energy for America grants.
In her videotaped prepared statement, Klobuchar said improvements may need to be made in the crop insurance program, the livestock disaster program - like the one that addressed the avian influenza outbreak, and streamlining conservation programs.
She expects "pushback" regarding any increase in the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires a certain volume of renewable fuel such as ethanol.
Dave Frederickson, Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture, said the farm bill is estimated at $466 billion, but only 20 percent is dedicated to farm programs.
He said 80 percent of the cost covers programs including free and reduced-price school lunches and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides food assistance for families.
While some may think it would be advantageous to have the farm bill stand on its own separate from food support programs, Frederickson said linking the two together helps both win congressional approval.
"We ride on their shoulders and they ride on ours," Frederickson said.
Klobuchar's staff is conducting farm bill meetings in six cities this week. The session Tuesday morning in Willmar drew the largest crowds so far, according to Klobuchar's staff.