Farmers: Keep ag safety nets, research, education in Farm Bill

Trey Mewes The Free Press, Mankato, Minn. McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Farm Forum

MANKATO, Minn. — Agricultural specialists say the 2018 Farm Bill needs to keep so-called safety net programs to help farmers through tough times. It also needs to maintain ag public research spending and pursue more opportunities for budding farmers and young adults to get into the ag business.

That’s the message Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, heard on Jan. 13 at a gathering of farm and agricultural experts at the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association in Mankato.

Federal lawmakers have spent the past few months working on the latest Farm Bill, which provides funding to a variety of agriculture and nutrition programs. Yet ag experts are worried the GOP-controlled Congress will try to cut crop insurance, separate nutrition spending from ag funding, and potentially cut down on the amount of programs available for farm businesses.

“We’re going to be playing defense, not offense,” Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said.

Smith, who became Minnesota’s newest senator less than two weeks ago, toured south-central Minnesota on Jan. 13 to hear more about the ag industry’s concerns.

Experts told Smith they were concerned not enough was being done to encourage students to go into farming or other types of agricultural business. Kegan Zimmerman, a regional president with the Minnesota FFA and a Red Rock Central High School student, said his parents expected him to pursue other opportunities rather than inherit the family farm.

“We want to push people to go into agriculture, but we need help in broadening what students can do,” he said.

Several ag advocates urged Smith to protect public research funding into agriculture to maintain the U.S.’s strength as a global agricultural power. Others focused on disease prevention on animals, such as foot and mouth disease vaccination among livestock.

Dave Preisler, chief executive officer of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, worries the United States will lose out if it doesn’t do enough to vaccinate livestock. According to Preisler, 28 percent of pork produced in the U.S. is exported, which would mean a massive economic blow if ag operations caught diseases like foot and mouth.

“If we didn’t have a logical way then to address that with vaccine and figure out how to get out of that situation, we would have to downsize,” he said. “So that means farms go out of business, that means packing plants go out of business, that means less demand for corn and soybeans.”

Other advocates say more needs to be done to support farmers’ mental health. Bruce Mathiowetz, a Belle Plaine High School agricultural instructor, said he sees area families face the same sort of upheaval farmers did during the 1980s agricultural economic crisis.

“I’m seeing students in my classroom that are being impacted by what’s going on with mom and dad,” he said. “They’re not totally sure what’s going on.”

Smith, who worked on agriculture-related issues as lieutenant governor, said after the meeting she hoped to help preserve nutrition funding in the farm bill and expand trade opportunities with other countries, among other things.

“I intend to be a strong voice for keeping these initiatives that work so well in Minnesota, keeping them working,” she said.