Minnesota dairy farmers vent their farm bill frustrations

Farm Forum

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) – Washington’s inability to settle on a farm bill is frustrating to dairy farmers across Minnesota.

New enrollment in conservation programs has been halted, and farmers worry about disruptions in farm prices next year if no bill is passed.

“Everything’s up in the wind right now,” Melrose dairy farmer Dennis Ritter told the St. Cloud Times for a story published Tuesday. “We need a stabilized market.”

A one-year extension of the previous five-year farm bill ended Sept. 30. On top of that, the federal government shutdown halted most U.S. Department of Agriculture functions from Oct. 1-16, delaying payments to farmers and interrupting crop reports and other vital information.

The House and Senate have passed different versions of the bill, the biggest difference being how to fund food stamps and related programs that account for roughly 80 percent of the farm bill’s cost. The Republican-controlled House approved a $40 billion cut for food stamps, while the Democratic-controlled Senate wants reductions of $4 billion. There are also differences in a safety net for dairy producers; a House-Senate conference committee is expected to meet later this month to begin reconciling the two.

“The farm bill is not one party or another party,” said Steve Schlangen, an Albany dairy farmer. “If they can’t get something done with the farm bill, then they probably can’t get something done with anything else.”

The Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production, is seeing an immediate impact. New enrollments of land can’t happen until a farm bill is passed, said Jerry Hurrle, farm loan manager for the Farm Service Agency in Waite Park.

Carol Anderson, a Gilman dairy farmer, said the blizzard that killed thousands of cattle earlier this month in South Dakota left her pondering what could happen if a similar disaster happened here. Renewal of disaster aid could be included in a new farm bill.

If there’s no agreement by January, the country would revert to 1949-era farm legislation. Some predict that would trigger a dramatic spike in the price of milk.

Bob Lefebvre, executive director of Minnesota Milk Producers, said he’s not sure if that would materialize. But the uncertainty isn’t doing dairy farmers any favors, he said.

“We really don’t know what will happen until it happens,” Lefebvre said. “We’re heading into a potential train wreck.”

Dan Martens, a University of Minnesota Extension educator in Foley, said this is the time when many farmers plan for next season with tasks such as negotiating rent agreements for land. But Martens said the lack of a farm bill makes that tough.

“Without really knowing what the farm bill is going to look like for next year, it leaves people hanging a little bit,” Martens said.