Nutrition programs, crop insurance, land access and shipping woes were all key topics during a special listening session in Owatonna Tuesday morning.

Staff from United States Sen. Amy Klobuchar's Office stopped by Owatonna Public Utilities to host an open forum-style listening session regarding the 2023 Farm Bill. Owatonna served as the first stop of the outreach team's weeklong listening tour, which will bring them across the state, discussing top priorities for the upcoming farm bill with area farmers, ag representatives, local leaders and community members.

Klobuchar, DFL-MN, who sits on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Senate Committee, has been vocal about her several priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill, which include continuing the progress already made on protecting commodities and providing a safety net for farmers through crop insurance, additional progress in biofuels investments, making E15 available year round, maintaining resources for animal disaster relief, providing reliable broadband to rural areas and continued support for nutrition programs such as SNAP.

Additionally, Klobuchar introduced bipartisan legislation this week alongside Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, to strengthen agricultural data collection and research to connect farmers with the most effective conservative practices.

"These sessions are so important because they allow us to get input and feedback from you, the people who will benefit directly from the programs and resources in the farm bill," Klobuchar said in a recorded message at the beginning of Tuesday's listening session. "Hearing from all of you on your priorities will shape and inform what I'll fight for as we begin our work in Washington to pass a strong 2023 farm bill, following in the footsteps of the bills we've worked on together and successfully passed over these last few years."

"I'm focused on keeping what works, as well as making changes that fit your needs," she said.

The local listening sessions was led by Senior Regional Outreach Director Chuck Ackman and Legislative Assistant Thomas Liepold from Klobuchar's office. Liepold also helps head up agriculture policy research for the senator's office. Other members of Klobuchar's staff, as well as staff members from the offices of U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-MN, and U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, D-MN CD2, and the United States Department of Agriculture.

"Sen. Klobuchar wants to get a farm bill done this year, and she is committed to doing it in a bipartisan way," Liepold said.

Comments from attendees

Those in attendance as members of the agriculture and farming community ranged from a young farmer with the National Young Farmers Coalition to leaders with the Minnesota Soybean Association to the administrative team of Community Pathways of Steele County. Priorities talked about among those providing the feedback focused largely on crop insurance, land access food insecurity.

"Coverage options years to year has worked relatively well, but it is below cost production realistically by $200 to $300 per acre," said Darin Johnson, vice president of the Minnesota Soybean Association. "I have to ask for an increase of funding on an insurance standpoint and to keep crop insurance affordable — that's a huge safety net we need."

Johnson said maintaining the integrity and security of crop insurance is critical as prices of commodities continue to stay on par with the inflation to the cost of production. He said trends are showing that price of crops such as soybeans, corn and even livestock are going to fall, yet the production costs will remain high. Rob Tate, director of Minnesota Corn Growers Association, echoed Johnson, adding that while the programs have worked well they can be "complicated," stating some ad hoc programs have been developed to address that concern over the years.

"I have to complement the work in crop insurance; I feel that is a strong program," Tate said. "We just need to keep it affordable and not do any harm to it so we can strengthen that safety net, but the overall structure is good."

Tate also hoped legislators will consider keeping any conservation items in the upcoming farm bill on a voluntary basis, noting many farmers are already being proactive in the area of sustainable farming.

"I worry that as things become mandatory, they may actually be counterproductive to things that are happening already," he said.

Dom Korbel, executive director of Community Pathways, also expressed concern about not doing harm to an already good program. While hearing the discussion of needing more funding for a variety of programs in the room, Korbel's biggest concern was protecting the nutrition programs already in place.

"Needing more funding is a common theme, but the nutrition programs are working and I don't want us to forget about them," Korbel said. "They reality is the crisis around food insecurity is astronomical — 1 in 6 children do not know where their next meal is coming from. I don't want the nutrition programs to be where the funding creativity happens."

Kelsey Zaavedra, a young farmer from Chisago County who drove down to Owatonna to be part of the listening tour not scheduled to be in her area of the state, also talked about the concern of providing food to consumers, reminding the room that when farmers play a vital role in society.

"We feed people," Zaavedra said, stating there are many young farmers out there who "want to do the work" but cannot get land to do it. "There is so much value in the maring, but young farmers are having a heck of a time accessing land. We need to take an equitable approach to the farm bill … We can all relate to how important our work is, whether we grow food or fuel."

Zaavedra, who is also a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition, said the country is currently losing 2,000 acres of farmland a day to development. Farmer Les Anderson said he noted the large solar field currently being developed on 1,500 acres of "prime agricultural land" near Byron is an example of companies "competing against small and young farmers.

"A lot of good farmland is being taken out of production, and that money is going to go to out of state investors," Anderson said.