WILLMAR - Farmers from a half-dozen counties met Monday in Willmar to discuss their concerns about high health insurance costs, how federal renewable fuel standard waivers for oil refineries could hurt Minnesota's ethanol industry, what may be in a new federal farm bill and preventing farmer suicides in the wake of a poor ag economy.
As part of the "rural voices" discussion sponsored by the Minnesota Farmers Union, they also expressed concerns about the state issuing fines for farmers who are out of compliance with the buffer law, the need for good roads and broadband internet service, and regulations for chronic wasting disease in wild deer that could affect elk farmers.
The wide range of topics represented "powerful" concerns by farmers, said Bruce Miller, outreach director for the Farmers Union.
Miller promised the farmers that issues important to them will be included in a report to the Legislature. "We want them to know what our people are thinking," he said.
Staff from the offices of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson said they would take the message farmers delivered in Willmar back to their bosses in Washington, D.C.
Much of the discussion hinged on issues that could affect farmers' bottom line.
The farm economy is on a financial tightrope and there's concern that talk of trade wars that target farm commodities and a federal farm bill that's stalled in Congress could cause some farmers to lose their small toehold.
"This is probably the second worst farm crisis that I've seen," said Harmon Wilts, drawing comparisons to the farm crisis of the early 1980s.
Wilts, who farms near Kerkhoven, said the high cost of health care makes it difficult for young people to start a career in farming and that changes in the federal renewable fuels standard could make it difficult for farmers to stay farming.
Hardship waivers from the Environmental Protection Agency would give some refineries - including one of the largest in the country - an exemption from blending petroleum with ethanol.
The move has come under fire from many farm groups who are concerned the demand for ethanol will decline, yet another blow to low corn prices.
Wilts said having successful ethanol plants in rural Minnesota could mean the difference between "survival or not" for farmers.
Economic stress on farmers has also made the issue of mental health services a big topic in ag circles.
One individual said some dairy farmers in Wisconsin get suicide prevention information and telephone numbers along with their milk checks.
That wouldn't be happening if commodity prices were higher and health care more affordable, said Paul Molenaar, a Kandiyohi County farmer.
Grant Herfindahl, who used to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency in Swift County and later led the state office, stressed the need for a strong farm bill to keep farms viable with an array of services that go well beyond direct payments.
The federal farm program "saved us in the '50s. It saved us in the '70s. It saved us in the '80s and we need it today," Herfindahl said.
The current farm bill expires in September and talks in Congress have stalled, in part, because of proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that is a major part of the farm bill.
Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, said he is "not optimistic" about a new farm bill being completed by September and expects the current one will be extended.
The farm bill is about 2 percent of the entire federal budget, Wertish said, yet cuts are being proposed for many USDA programs that directly affect farmers.