Minnesota gives ideas for farm bill

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REDWOOD FALLS — Crop insurance. Organic agriculture. Young farmers. Conservation. Sugar help. Vaccine. Feeding the poor. International trade.

The list started there and went on and on as 11 U.S. representatives sat through 2½ hours of ideas from Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa farmers and agribusiness people about how they should write new federal farm legislation.

The only common theme the 11 heard was that they want the federal government to help agriculture.

Minnesota FFA President Katie Benson of Staples, for instance, told the congressmen that she never intended to be in farming until a friend gave her some turkeys to raise. She was hooked.

"What we really need is a policy that supports youth in agriculture," she said at one of two microphones set up in a Farmfest building. She urged the committee to fund a youth in agriculture coordinator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Those with much more agriculture experience had their own requests.

Take sugar beet industry leaders, for instance.

Robert Green, American Crystal Sugar Co. chairman, testified that subsidized Mexico sugar is "threatening the viability of the sugar beet industry," adding that the industry "is the lifeblood of the Red River Valley."

The St. Thomas, North Dakota, farmer said more than 2,000 employees and 3,000 farmers depend on reducing the Mexican threat to the $5 billion Red River Valley industry.

Kyle Peterson, Southern Minnesota Sugar Beet Cooperative chairman, told lawmakers a sobering fact: "Most crop farmers borrow more in one year to produce a crop than most Americans do in a lifetime. ... We borrow to plant the next crop long before we are paid for the last crop."
"Our risks have gone up while our balance sheets have gone down," said Peterson, whose cooperative is based in Renville.

Stories like that peppered testimony, which came from men and women, young and old.

After brief opening remarks from each lawmaker, they sat back and listened to about 50 testifiers at Farmfest, the annual southwestern Minnesota agricultural event. Another 20 signed up, but time ran out before they could testify.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and ranking Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota are taking the committee to a half-dozen listening sessions, intending to use what they learn to write a farm bill they hope Congress can pass late this year or early next.

"Bringing the Agriculture Committee to my district, to Farmfest, gave members the opportunity to hear directly from Minnesota's farmers about the challenges they face in this part of the country," Peterson said.

Members included Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat who has no farmers in his district.

"There is a direct connection between farmers and consumers," Evans said.

With just 36 out of 435 congressmen coming from rural districts, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said, it is important to convince others about the importance of farming. "I talk about it from a national security standpoint."

Many testifiers belong to the Land Stewardship Project, which generally seeks protection for small farmers and for increased conservation support.

Darwyn Bach said the project wants the farm bill to stop "encouraging and subsidizing corporate concentration." Small farms would better support local communities, he said.

Jerry Matzner of Century Farm Organics was one of several who urged that organic farmers again be included in the farm bill, which Peterson first did when he was ag chairman.

Customers are willing to pay more for food if they are assured it is truly organic, he said. "Your support for the organic industry is critical for small farmers."

When asked about organics after the meeting, Conaway made it obvious he is not a big organic supporter. He said the ag committee must concentrate on helping the poorest afford food, not those with enough money to pay a premium.

Some of the testifiers urged consideration for continuing a program formerly known as food stamps.

Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper testified that more than 85 percent of recipients in the western Minnesota congressional district where Farmfest is held worked within the past year. That shows, she said, it is not deadbeats who usually collect federal food aid.

"These are the working poor: our neighbors we see serving in restaurants, retail, sometimes in temporary or seasonal employment and oftentimes on farms," Piper said.

Chairman Brent Davison of Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative pointed to a need that took some by surprise: Researchers are needed in agriculture.

Many in the business are ready to retire, Davison said, leaving organizations like he leads looking. "We are heavily dependent upon research to fight a variety of challenges."

A challenge that is becoming more and more of a concern to livestock producers is foot and mouth disease. The highly contagious viral disease can spread rapidly, Farmfest visitors heard at the House hearing and at other events this week, but the country has little vaccine to deal with it.

President Krist Wollum of the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association said that if the disease breaks out, it would cost the livestock industry billions of dollars in the first year alone. He said federal help is needed to build a stock of vaccine.