Farm bill a safety net for the country
WILLMAR — Saying that the nation's farm economy is on the brink of a crisis and needs a strong safety net, people from a wide variety of backgrounds provided ideas Thursday in Willmar about what should be included in the next farm bill.
The current farm bill expires in September of 2018, and with $10 billion in proposed cuts looming for the program, there's concern the safety net will have more holes than it does now.
"The farm bill is under a lot of pressure already," Rob Larew, senior vice president of public policy and communications for the National Farmers Union, told the crowd at a meeting hosted by the Minnesota Farmers Union. "There are proposed cuts in a number of different sections and that's critically disturbing."
While the farm bill is typically seen as benefiting just farmers, the message presented Thursday was clear that the farm bill helps rural communities and is a safety net for the entire country.
Nearly 80 percent of farm bill money goes to food and nutrition programs that aid children and the elderly.
Larew said a good farm bill is not only needed to provide support to farmers who have been rocked by low commodity prices and high input costs in recent years, but also to secure an adequate food supply in the country and to provide necessary funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often referred to as food stamps.
About a half million Minnesotans use food stamps, usually on a temporary basis after a job loss or health crisis, said Marcus Schmit, director of advocacy for Second Harvest.
Schmit, who said $5 spent in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program brings $10 in returns to the farm economy, fears federal cuts to the farm bill will mean costs to maintain SNAP will be passed onto states.
"The farm bill probably is the most important piece of legislation not only for our farmers but rural communities — rural America," said Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, adding that rural America played a big role in the 2016 election.
"We don't need to be cutting rural America," Wertish said.
The current farm economy has some remembering the farm crisis of the 1980s. Numerous farm foreclosures not only reduced the number of farmers but emptied out many rural towns.
"We're very close to that. If we don't get some reprieve in prices, we're very close to having another washout," Wertish said. "That's the importance of having a strong safety net."
The driving factor in the farm bill discussion is "the critical state of the economy," Larew said.
Paul Sobocinski, a farmer from Wabasso, said he sees a "huge squeeze" in the future for farmers and that Congress needs to be aware of a potential "huge crisis" and that funding for agriculture should not be cut now.
Sobocinski said health care, better payments for conservation programs and expanding crop rotation are issues he wants Congress to hear about.
Encouraging investments in on-the-farm, small-scale renewable energy projects like solar and wind power, expanding broadband internet, providing assistance to get farmers in the business and having a solid crop insurance program were also discussed.
Wertish said after years of low prices, the current crop insurance program is not working like it should to help farmers stay in business.
Representatives from the offices of Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Collin Peterson were at the meeting and assured participants that the Minnesota delegation will hear their concerns and members are already working on the new farm bill.
The congressional delegation will likely hear much more of the same during a legislative forum next month at Farm Fest.
"We want to make sure Congress hears us," said Bruce Miller, membership and outreach director with the Minnesota Farmers Union.