West central Minnesota ag producers looking for bigger, better farm bill
Producers sees bigger needs as farms grow, and market and geopolitical volatility become the norm, according to attendees at a farm bill listening session in Willmar.
WILLMAR, Minn. — Representatives of major agricultural groups made it clear what they want in a new farm bill when staff with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's office held a listening session in Willmar on Jan. 31.
For the most part, it’s a bigger and better version of the bill crafted in 2018.
The crop insurance program, the dairy margin program, animal disease prevention and response, and initiatives that promote trade and voluntary conservation were among components of the current bill that received the thumbs-up from attendees.
They also voiced support for bigger versions of those components as farms and operations grow and as market and geopolitical volatility increasingly become the norm.
The dairy margin program made part of the 2018 bill has proven to be very good for dairy producers, according to Steve Schlangen, a dairy farmer from Albany and current chair of the board of directors for AMPI.
But Schlangen said the program’s cap is no longer large enough.
The program was launched with an insurance cap based on the 5 million pounds of milk that the average-sized herd of just over 200 cows could produce in 2018. Today, the average herd size is just over 300 cows, he explained.
Ditto for the federal government’s investment in research to prevent animal diseases and the ability to respond to outbreaks by helping depopulate infected flocks or herds.
Ashley Kohls, executive director with the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, said her producers are looking for more research into vaccines and “biosecurity measures that work.”
Partners in the beef, pork and dairy industries also want to see a bigger pot of funding for these efforts, she told Klobuchar’s staff members.
Kohls added that turkey producers believe that avian influenza will be an ongoing challenge.
Ryan Mackenthun, director of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, and Richard Syverson, president of Minnesota Corn Growers, both emphasized the importance of the crop insurance program to their producers. “Our No. 1 farm bill priority,” said Syverson.
Syverson and Mackenthun said their members do not want to see conservation practices tied to crop insurance. They said their members support a larger conservation initiative, but they want it to be voluntary and incentive-based.
“Science-based with incentives, not penalties, not a mandate,” said Nikki Deyle, of AgriGrowth Council, of the message her organization hears from a wide spectrum of agricultural producers.
Syverson also urged continued support for biofuels. He pointed out that more than one-third of Minnesota’s corn crop goes to ethanol. A large share of the ethanol is sold out of state, bringing new dollars in. The distillers dried grains that result from ethanol production go largely to feed livestock in the state. The revenue from livestock feed represents “real, circulating dollars that hits more than one place in the community,” he said.
The 2018 farm bill was originally estimated as a $428 billion investment over its five-year course. Of the funding, roughly two-thirds is committed to nutrition programs while the remainder is largely targeted for the crop, conservation and commodity programs.
Bernice Wimmer, director of the Douglas County Outreach Food Shelf, said she wants to see funding for nutrition programs continue and improve. A one-size-fits-all model of funding for transporting food from food banks to food shelves puts rural food shelves like hers at a disadvantage. She urged using a model like that used for schools, in which areas with low population density — and as a result, generally higher shipping costs — are reimbursed at a rate that takes this into account.
Wimmer also pointed out the importance of the nutrition programs in rural areas. In Douglas County, she said 11% of seniors live in poverty. Many of them are in rural homes and do not have access to nutrition programs offered in urban areas.
She also told the staff members that funding for nutrition programs is being reduced significantly, by $500,000 per month for Douglas County, now that COVID-19 aid funds for the programs have been ended.
The rural labor shortage is the issue that brought Kandiyohi County producer Tim Kanten to the session. Kanten said he needs H-2A temporary farm workers, but dealing with the paperwork and slow turnaround times required by the program for non-resident workers is “a nightmare.”
A shortage of child care and housing were also cited by participants as issues directly affecting agriculture in rural areas. The child care shortage is keeping many potential workers in their homes, exacerbating the labor shortage.
Steve Gardner, Kandiyohi County Commissioner from Willmar, told the staff members that there is an estimated shortage of 950 to 1,000 child care slots in the county.
He emphasized the importance of the agricultural industry to Willmar, and as a result, the importance of the farm bill to rural communities.
In a video for the outreach session, Klobuchar described her support for many of the farm bill components discussed at the Willmar session, along with continued funding for the expansion of broadband infrastructure in rural areas.
Staff members Chuck Ackman and Thomas Liepold told attendees that the U.S. Senate is moving rapidly, with expectations of having the farm bill completed by year’s end.