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A quiet ag crisis: Farmers share struggles at listening session

WINDOM -- Nearly 30 farmers from across southwest Minnesota gathered Wednesday night at the River City Eatery in Windom for a heart-to-heart discussion about the state of agriculture, from low commodity prices to health care costs high enough to ...

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Minnesota Farmers Union President Gary Wertish, Renville, addresses a gathering of farmers Wednesday evening at River City Eatery in Windom. The event was one of 15 listening sessions being conducted around the state to address rural issues. (Julie Buntjer / Daily Globe)

WINDOM - Nearly 30 farmers from across southwest Minnesota gathered Wednesday night at the River City Eatery in Windom for a heart-to-heart discussion about the state of agriculture, from low commodity prices to health care costs high enough to put them out of business.

The event was one of 15 listening sessions offered around the state this week and next led by Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU) President Gary Wertish. The organization typically hosts spring meetings, but after the November election, Wertish came away with the message that rural voices weren’t being heard. Wednesday night was an opportunity for farmers to speak about ag issues.

Windom’s event was the fifth session this week, and Wertish said much of the discussion has focused on health care. He said a farmer attending an earlier session Wednesday complained his health insurance premium was $29,000 this year and his deductible $13,000.

“The individual marketplace hits the farmers the hardest because you’re all buying your own insurance,” Wertish said, calling Gov. Mark Dayton’s plan for insurance relief a Band-Aid. “Until you get both parties to sit down and not worry about winning the next election, they’re not going to solve this problem.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or Republican when you get sick. It does matter if you have health insurance,” he added.

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Martin County farmer Gerald Tumbleson said farmers need to put pressure on legislators. Otherwise, the only people who will be farming are those over age 65 on Medicare.

“We’re getting hit harder and harder and harder and we’ve got a guy in office now that’s never worked a day in his life and he doesn’t give a damn about us,” Tumbleson said. “We’re the ones that are getting killed, and all we do is bitch.”

Nobles County Farmers Union President Ted Winter said part of the problem is farmers can’t compete with special interest groups. He said insurance and health care companies have 35 to 40 lobbyists each at the capitol daily, outnumbering farm groups.

“We need to have more people in St. Paul or in Washington that are talking for us,” he said. “Way too much money is influencing the vote. We have a small voice … and an even smaller amount of money.”

Brent Imker of rural Lamberton encouraged farmers to be their own advocates. He’s traveled to both St. Paul and Washington, D.C., most recently advocating at the nation’s Capitol on behalf of the American Coalition for Ethanol.

“We made five stops … and had five great receptions,” Imker said. “We’re outnumbered, we’re outgunned, but we’re the most respected people there.”

Rural Wabasso farmer Paul Sobocinski said health insurance is cutting into farm budgets terribly, but the real issue, he said, is “farm prices aren’t worth a (redacted) and they haven’t been for two or three years.”

In the past, some farm programs have encouraged crop producers to idle acres, resulting in reduced production in hopes of driving up crop prices.

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“If everybody didn’t plant 10 percent of their acres, it would make a difference,” Wertish said. “Without a federal program, people aren’t going to do it.”

“We have within our own disposal many tools we can use to restrict our own production so that we can make a profit, yet somehow the American farmer is just not willing to do that,” added Rich Vander Ziel, a Murray County farmer. He said farmers only need to look in the mirror to place blame.

“I think we have to at least admit that many of us project an image that we are hooked into agribusiness, searching only for a profit and willing to submit to the large corporations,” he said.

“The man who’s packing a lunchbox isn’t going to feel bad for the man who’s going out in a field worth $2 million.”

Sobocinski said farmers can diversify their operations by planting more legumes.

“We don’t need more corn and beans dumped on the market,” he said.

Sobocinski said the ag sector is in a quiet farm crisis.

“Farmers got a big crop, they’re going to hang through this year perhaps, but next year - if they don’t get the big yields - they’re going to be done,” he said.

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“And interest rates are starting to creep up now,” noted Wertish. “That’s what made the last farm crisis so bad, when the interest rates went up.”

Roads, taxes and the DNR Yellow Medicine County farmer Tim Velde raised concerns about funding for township roads, particularly with increased traffic from farmers hauling livestock, feed and manure. He said the gravel roads are taking a beating, and taxes aren’t generating enough revenue for townships to maintain them.

“Townships are trying to figure out if there’s a different formula that can be used so they pay a higher tax on (confinement) buildings,” Velde said. “They’re just paying on the footprint of the building, which doesn’t amount to much. It’s getting to be a real concern.”

Wertish said MFU has advocated for an increase in the gas tax to fund roads, and while Gov. Dayton supports it, Minnesota Republicans do not.

“This can has been kicked down the road so many times it’s fallen into a pothole and you can’t find it anymore,” Wertish said.

On another subject, Wilmont farmer Jim Joens was concerned about the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources taking over good crop ground. He said once those lands are reclassified, the PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) drops and the township gets less money to maintain its roads. Joens asked if MFU is supporting any bills to stop the DNR.

“We’ve got a massive land grab going on right now,” Joens said, noting that between Pheasants Forever and other groups buying land and turning it over to the state to the new state law regarding buffers, a lot of agricultural income is being lost.

“You take 120,000 acres out of production on buffers alone and the DNR is hoping to buy another half-million acres in the next year or two, do you know how many dollars that takes out of the community?” Joens asked.

As the meeting wrapped up, Velde said farmers - and farm organizations - need to work together.

“There needs to be a value on the people who produce the food and fiber for this country,” he said.

“There’s only 2 percent of us in the entire country,” added Winter. “There will be fewer and fewer if we don’t do something.”

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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