Farm bill forum opens dialogue between farmers, experts

Kristin Goosen Fergus Falls Daily Journal
Minn. McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. — The Agricultural Act of 2014 is more commonly known as the farm bill, and it’s quickly approaching its renewal. The Community Conversations Committee of Otter Tail County hosted a listening session on Jan. 24 in Pelican Rapids, Minn., to have an open forum for community members to learn a bit more about the bill and how it impacts them, as well as ask a diversely qualified panel questions about the bill and its implications.

From questions involving how many cows it takes to buy a pickup truck to the effectiveness of supply chains, a variety of subjects were covered and a dialogue was opened.

The Lake Region Cooperative public meeting room was filled with attendants. Panelists for the evening were Dennis Johnson, an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Morris and researcher focused in moderately sized dairy farms, intensive grazing systems, land stewardship project and the Sustainable Farming Association. Ryan Pesch introduced himself as an Extension professor for UMM by day and a certified organic vegetable farmer by night in Otter Tail County. Dan Skogen is a planning and government relations director for the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute and served in the Minnesota Senate from 2007-2010. Lastly, Collin Peterson, representative of the 7th District in Minnesota, made a short appearance and answered a few questions while on the panel.

After a brief overview of the bill and what it does, Peterson took the mic to explain where it’s at legislatively. Having to be renewed every five years, they are now in the midst of reauthorizing by Sept. 30 of this year.

“If this bill gets screwed up, it will be because of food stamps,” Peterson said, referencing the main controversial point in the bill. Through several reauthorizations, this has always been the sticking point with few changes made in other aspects.

A question came from the audience directed at Peterson asking how the new federal tax reform would make a difference in terms of farmers and the farm bill.

One of the major differences Peterson listed was the benefit to co-ops.

“Now you’ve got a situation where if you sell your products to a co-op, you’re going to be maybe five times better off than if you sell to Cargill or to a private company,” Peterson said.

Misconceptions about SNAP were also addressed in Peterson’s time at the forum. While it does take up 80 percent of the farm bill, Peterson said the amount of funds it’s receiving is getting less by “amount and percentage.” He also addressed the “cheating the system” portion of it that many people believe, stating that after EBT cards were implemented, there is less fraudulent actions in relation to SNAP. It was also reasserted that more than 80 percent of people who benefit from SNAP are children, disabled and the elderly.

One farmer asked why 40 years ago he could buy a brand new pickup truck for eight holsteins and now it would cost him 40-50, but ultimately ending his question time by asking how a small farmer is going to compete against corporations.

Johnson answered from the panel saying that smaller farmers need to think about what they’re growing as a product.

“There is an opportunity for almost every farmer to make a product instead of a commodity. The little guy needs to focus on quality and distinction,” Johnson said. Specializing your product and making it unique will make it valuable.

This ties in with another popular topic of the evening, which is sustainability and organic farming. For Skogen’s part, his company looks to invest in entrepreneurs and working in agriculture and a lot of that these days has had to do with sustainability and conservation.

A question from the audience was asked about shipping products out to be processed instead of processing right in the county and if that is losing the area money.

Pesch tackled that, as his business deals with the shortest supply chain in organics. He mentioned that he would like to see the farm bill address local production in some way, but he likes that smaller organic farms are largely not affected much by legislation.

“I have a nice, clean situation. You want a product, I can raise you a product and I’m going to ask a fair price and you are going to pay a fair price,” Pesch said.

When the question about sustainability was brought up, Johnson said that it shouldn’t be only an independent farm thing, but at a societal level.

Although there was pushback voiced about the new buffer laws, it was generally agreed upon by those in attendance that the health of the waters and land is important.

Ultimately, there were many questions asked, grievances aired and ideas shared. What became clear is that people want to know what’s in this bill and how it will affect them and their farms. It’s also clear that they want to talk about underlying issues that are impacting the agricultural community as a whole. Opening this dialogue as the first farm forum, if judged by attendance and participation, it seems to be a step in the right direction.

“Farmers are optimistic, no matter what they say at the coffee shop. They still put the seed in the ground every spring and expect it to grow,” Skogen said.