OWATONNA — More than 30 area farmers and ag representatives attended a public forum Monday morning in Owatonna to provide feedback to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Office on the upcoming farm bill.
“What’s in the farm bill that’s working really well? What’s in the farm bill that we kind of need to work better? And what’s not in the farm bill and should be?” asked Chuck Ackman, Klobuchar’s southern Minnesota outreach director.
Those were questions posed to seated individuals at the public forum, which was held Monday at the Steele County Administration Building, where members of Klobuchar’s staff and Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson fielded comments and concerns to relay back to the senator.
The public forum in Owatonna kicked off Klobuchar’s two-day Farm Bill Tour featuring stops in six counties across the state to input from those who are impacted by the current farm bill that was passed by Congress in 2014 and will be affected by the reauthorization in 2018.
“With a new Congress and a new president, I know it’s more important than ever to find common ground on solutions that help all Americans, and I think the farm bill should be one of those bipartisan areas where people can work together,” said Klobuchar in a video played at the beginning of the forum for those in attendance.
Klobuchar, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a 2014 Farm Bill Conference Committee member, helped craft the current farm bill that was “designed to reduce the deficit, strengthen the crop insurance program, eliminate direct payments, boost conservation, maintain the sugar program, and keep nutrition programs strong for Minnesota families,” according to a press release.
She also advocated for provisions in the bill that support rural development projects, conservation programs, agricultural research and the Rural Energy for America Program.
Before opening the forum for public comment, Frederickson and Brian Werner, Klobuchar’s legislative assistant, provided an overview of the current farm bill and a look ahead at what’s to come in agriculture policy.
Frederickson said the current farm bill, which costs about $466 billion over a five-year period, features 12 titles, including rural development, trade and foreign agriculture and conservation, but 80 percent of the bill falls under nutrition, which contains the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, and the Emergency Food Assistance Program that supports food banks and pantries.
“Why can’t we split? I think the answer is fairly obvious. Farmers make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, so we probably couldn’t get it done without an alliance, a coalition if you will of other folks,” he said. “We carry them on our back and they carry us on their back.”
Frederickson said while he doesn’t know what direction new administration will take, it’s important for individuals, particularly in the Midwest, to speak with President Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. agriculture secretary, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, about agriculture in the region.
Werner encouraged individuals with questions for Klobuchar to ask Perdue to share them so she has them during the committee meeting this week. After the hearing, he said meetings will take place on the farm bill.
To answer Ackman’s question about what’s working in the farm bill, Bruce Peterson said crop insurance.
“It’s wildly popular, and hopefully we can maintain it,” he said, noting that usually young farmers are at a disadvantage because they don’t have production history, and the farm bill has helped. “It’s critically important for young people to get loans ... so crop insurance seems like it’s a target every year but it’s one we need to maintain.”
Alex Pirkl said he is concerned about crop insurance because he likes “the revenue protection” but there isn’t a way to control production.
“We have no incentive to do anything but produce as much as you possibly can,” he said.
Pirkl said when prices are low, other productions cut back, but in farming, “we produce as much as we possibly can every year.”
Werner said conservation programs may be “more appealing,” but he doesn’t know if that will solve production management.
Louanne Kaupa, a dietitian and nutritionist at Eat Well Nutrition Therapy in Owatonna, said she was concerned about “meeting the food needs of our families.”
“I’m representing that 80 percent,” she said, noting one in seven families in the U.S. is food insecure.
Kaupa said when funding cuts are discussed within the farm bill, the cuts are made to SNAP and SNAP-education programs.
Kim Halvorson with the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association said there are issues with trade in the current bill that need to be resolved as well as the addition of a “strong animal disease prevention program,” pointing at the avian influenza outbreak that killed hundreds of thousands of poultry in 2015.
“Thank you to state and federal because both stepped up to plate very quickly to help us react,” she said.
Other comments were made on the conservation program, the death tax for individuals wishing to transfer ag assets to their children as well as large farm productions and broadband.
After the public forum in Owatonna, forums were held in New Ulm and Marshall on Monday with stops in Willmar, Morris and Moorhead slated for Tuesday.