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Kensington farm gets visit from Farm Service Agency chief

The head of the federal agency says farmers only keep 14 cents of each food dollar.

Zach Ducheneaux, head of the federal Farm Service Agency, left, visits with Kensington dairy farmer Greg Sabolik.
Zach Ducheneaux, head of the federal Farm Service Agency, left, visits with Kensington dairy farmer Greg Sabolik.
Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press
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KENSINGTON — Farmers ought to be able to keep more of what Americans spend on food, Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux said during a recent visit to a Douglas County dairy farm.

Right now, American farmers get 14 cents of every dollar spent on food, said the head of the federal agency.

“If we don’t keep more of that money in rural America, towns are going to get smaller,” he said.

Ducheneaux was in Minnesota for a conference in the Twin Cities and took time to travel to rural Minnesota to meet local farmers on May 19. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat — which he doffed when shaking hands during his visit to Bred and Butter Dairy in Kensington — he talked up the importance of value-added products as a way for farms to keep more of that food dollar. Value-added products for dairy farms might mean making and marketing their own cheeses or yogurts.

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Minnesota's cold, wet spring has left farmers behind in planting their crops.

Bred and Butter Dairy owners Greg and Gary Sabolik told Ducheneaux that they are considering value-added products. The brothers have expanded their dairy farm from what they called a “Norman Rockwell” farm of about 50 cows to more than 500 cows. They also raise corn and soybeans on 1,500 acres, and Gary owns an agriculture service business, and Greg is chair of the board of directors of AgCountry Farm Credit Services.

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The Saboliks expanded in 2014, just before milk prices tanked for three years. Milk prices recovered, but then the drought struck last year. Greg Sabolik said they lost 25% of their crops to the drought. Normally, they would sell that 25% and feed the rest to their cows.

The drought was another reason for Ducheneaux’s visit, as the FSA announced May 16 that $6 billion in aid is on its way to agricultural producers hit hard by natural disasters in 2020 and 2021, including wildfires, droughts, hurricanes and winter storms. The aid is based on a farmer's crop insurance. Farmers can choose what level to insure their crops at, from 50% to 85% of the expected cash market value. This aid will cover most of that gap for farmers in disaster areas. So farmers who received an insurance payment for 75% of crop loss will now get up to 95% coverage.

Since that aid was approved last year, Midwestern farms have racked up more damage from natural disasters, not only from this month's destructive windstorm that stretched from Kansas to Wisconsin, but from a cold, wet spring that has prevented farmers from getting into the field. Planting in Minnesota is far behind schedule, and Minnesota's entire congressional delegation and Gov. Tim Walz have asked the Biden administration for further infusions of cash assistance for farmers affected by these events.

In announcing the $6 billion in aid, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted that farmers are facing "more frequent and catastrophic natural disasters" without directly mentioning climate change.

Greg Sabolik asked Ducheneaux what might be coming down the road for carbon emissions in connection with climate change.

Ducheneaux said that at age 52, he has never seen some of the intense weather that has occurred in recent years, and that something has to be done.

"Denying it isn't going to work anymore," Ducheneaux said.

Greg Sabolik agreed that the weather has gotten more violent and that climate change needs to be addressed.

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He said he wants to "leave this place better than we found it. That's what we're all here for."

The Saboliks said that they appreciated a visit from the head of the Farm Service Agency.

"I'm impressed and happy that a man of his intelligence is in that role," Greg Sabolik said.

Gary Sobolik said he appreciated hearing how Ducheneaux is trying to make agricultural programs simpler for staff and for agricultural users.

Brady Sobolik, Gary's son, said he was impressed to hear that Ducheneaux passed up a chance to see the Kensington Runestone, preferring to meet farmers.

"That's a compliment," he said.

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994, and was driven by curiosity to work her way around the United States.
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