Any new version of the U.S. farm bill needs more rural development tools, better financial measures to help with loans and an emphasis on continuing the programs that work.
That's what local agriculture advocates and rural finance experts told U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's staff Wednesday during a forum at South Central College. Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, is part of the conference committee working on a new farm bill. Her staff is touring the state Wednesday and Thursday to receive feedback on its latest version.
Staff and advocates alike describe the situation surrounding this year's farm bill as "very dynamic." Congress is expected to pass a farm bill this year to replace its 2014 version. While the bill is normally a bipartisan affair, Democrats and Republicans became sharply divided over passing a new bill earlier this year when a GOP-led bill didn't make it out of the House.
That bill contained provisions that worried Democrats and some ag experts, such as trying to separate and restructure the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — colloquially known as the food assistance program.
The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee passed a different version of the bill earlier this month. That bill resembles the 2014 farm bill but offers slight tweaks to improve crop insurance and change troublesome dairy programs.
The Senate expects to take up the bill as early as next week, and the House could do the same. It's still not certain lawmakers can work out a deal, however, as some have tried to tie immigration reform to the farm bill over the past few months.
If lawmakers can hammer out a farm bill, ag experts would like them to address issues such as loan repayments, reducing or eliminating interest penalties, and ensuring more funding for economic development in rural areas. The aforementioned dairy programs need work, and the farm bill needs to include programs to support renewable energy.
Those programs are important to strike a balance not just for farms but for the surrounding rural communities. One Martin County farmer noted agriculture supports 70 percent of that county's tax base — meaning successful farms enrich rural Minnesota and allow for community growth.
Bob Madsen, vice president with Compeer Financial, said rural development was a key factor to growing agriculture in the U.S. in the future.
"In order for people to come back to smaller rural communities and the farm, they need to have most of the amenities that would be available in a metro area," Madsen said.
Brad Schloesser, dean of agriculture for the Southern Minnesota Center for Agriculture within South Central College, said rural development is very appropriate for a farm bill.
"In our country, 63 percent of the counties are rural," he said. "In order to have communities with vitality, we need successful farmers, vibrant families, a great rural economy available. And that's what enables us to have those things."
Some financial experts expressed concern over impending tariffs from China and Mexico on U.S. goods, which could severely affect Minnesota's turkey markets. They pushed Klobuchar's staff to encourage free trade even as President Donald Trump pursues tariffs on steel and alumnium for other countries.
The farm bill could be key to helping the U.S. agriculture industry in case of an international trade war.
"Farmers need the opportunity to farm," Schloesser said. "Everybody in this room, and across the U.S., they are blessed with good food. We know what the policy is in this country. In order to have that potential, we need to be able to farm."