Ideas abound at listening session about farm bill
WORTHINGTON -- About half a dozen farmers and agribusiness professionals raised concerns about everything from direct payments to loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres and the challenges facing young people wanting careers in production agriculture during a Farm Bill listening session Wednesday afternoon in Worthington.
The meeting, hosted by Sen. Al Franken's agriculture, energy and environment adviser, Al Juhnke of Willmar, was one of 12 sessions planned throughout the state in the coming days to collect input on the federal food and farm program.
Franken sent Juhnke out to meet with constituents as the U.S. House and Senate prepare for upcoming debates. Juhnke was quick to point out this isn't the first time these types of meetings have occurred.
Two years ago, there was a push to get a new farm bill written in advance of the Oct. 1, 2012, deadline. Then, in 2011, a bicameral and bipartisan Super Committee of a dozen legislators attempted to write a bill, but that process stalled as well.
"Now we know we're at the year where the farm bill expires ... and we're up against a wall -- we know we have to do something," said Juhnke in one of the classrooms at Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
The process is just starting to move forward again, but with so many new members in Congress, the push is to get a bill written in the Senate and then present it to the House -- a structure Juhnke said will hopefully move the legislation forward and get it igned before the deadline.
According to federal rules, if legislators can't pass a new farm bill or extend the existing one by the deadline, the policies revert back to those written in 1933.
"No one wants to go back to 1933," said Juhnke.
He spoke of some important dates coming up -- of wanting to get the bill moved from the Senate to the House before the Memorial Day break, then of getting the House to discuss the legislation before the July 4 break.
"The next date is elections in November," he said. "As tough as it is to pass things in Congress these days, if you add in election-year politics, it becomes very difficult to get things passed."
If there still isn't a new Farm Bill in place by the election, Juhnke said there's always the lame-duck session -- the eight weeks between the election and the end of the year.
"That's usually a pretty good time to pass legislation -- everyone's out of the political mode," he said.
Much of the focus of the next farm bill centers on the $32 billion in program cuts requested by President Barack Obama. Farm states want to make sure that money doesn't come solely from farm programs -- that nutrition programs share in the pain.
Juhnke said of the overall farm bill budget, 74 percent is for nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP -- formerly food stamps), Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the school lunch program.
"The other roughly one- quarter of the budget is commodities, conservation programs, rural development and everything else," he added. "We call it the farm bill, but it's got very little for farm programs in there."
One of the biggest proposed changes in the new legislation is shifting away from direct payments and moving toward a government-subsidized insurance program.
"We're hopeful a majority of things grown in the country can be moved to an insurance program," said Juhnke. "With insurance, we're not looking to make you rich, but at least keep you farming next year."
Pressuring the move are legislators from non-agricultural states who see farmers collecting federal farm payments and buying brand new farm equipment.
"(They're saying) you farmers are wealthy," Juhnke said. "That's what we're up against in Congress."
Juhnke reported that in his support of farmers, Franken tries to explain the country's need for food security and the cyclical nature of farming -- not every year do farmers make a profit.
Rich Vander Ziel of Chandler, a Murray County Farmer's Union member, said if the farm bill needs to be cut, he'd rather see a reduction in subsidies across the spectrum instead of elimination in favor of an insurance program. He also stressed the importance of conservation programs, hoping that money could target basic conservation practices.
Doug Bos, director of the Rock County Land Management Office in Luverne, also raised concerns about conservation programs.
"I want to urge Senator Franken to look at the conservation (programs)," Bos said. "If we're going to put (these programs) on the ground, we really need that technical assistance."
He also supported a change that would allow harvesting grass buffers once a year to make the conservation program more appealing to landowners.
Bos said studies show if the grass isn't cut in those buffer areas, it contributes to increased phosphorus in the waterways.
Richard Andert of Slayton said he would like to see a CRP program that offers a floating per-acre price so that it can remain competitive when land prices are high.
"If it's keeping up with the rent, you'd preserve the program a lot longer," Andert said.
During one of his meetings on Tuesday, Juhnke said someone suggested that expiring CRP acres be rented to beginning farmers, and at the same time, give the landlord a tax break for supporting the next generation in farming.
"Passing down to young farmers is really important," added Merlyn Hubin of Westbrook, who has two sons interested in farming.
"I don't want to have to die before they can get started," he said. "It's tough for these young kids to get financing."
Juhnke said he will pass along the comments collected from the listening sessions to Franken.
One of the resounding comments he's heard so far is that "whatever you do with the farm bill, keep in mind to keep it fair."
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer can be reached at