Politicians can likely expect hot seat at FarmFest

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 6, 2012 - 10:05 PM

Crippling drought, unresolved farm bill expected to prompt some heated questions for politicians.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson
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U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson

WASHINGTON - Members of Minnesota's congressional delegations and their challengers could come face-to-face with unhappy voters at this year's Minnesota FarmFest.

Amid a failed effort to provide emergency aid to farmers and ranchers struggling through a crippling national drought, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson expects thousands of Midwestern farmers to arrive in western Minnesota with questions about something else: the looming deadline for the federal farm bill.

Peterson, the lead Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, is not sure he has answers, save for blaming his Republican colleagues.

House Republican leaders have postponed action on the legislation until well after Labor Day, when Congress returns from a five-week recess.

With farmers already planning for next year, the delay could push a solution perilously close to the looming Sept. 30 deadline, when the current farm bill expires. Farmers live by nature's calendar, not a political one, and already are planning for next year, said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau.

Inaction may convince more of them that politicians are growing more detached than ever from the everyday realities of life on the farm.

"There's going to be some dissatisfaction" at FarmFest, said Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, who is not related to the congressman.

"This should be a nonpartisan deal. One side doesn't understand ... doesn't see any value in a farm bill."

Under pressure to do something for drought-choked farmers and ranchers, the GOP-led House approved $383 million in disaster aid before the recess, but could not muster the necessary votes on the larger, five-year farm bill. The chamber remains hindered by a divide between fiscal conservatives who want deep cuts in a larger farm bill and lawmakers from heavily rural districts.

The Senate's Democratic majority approved its version of the five-year farm bill earlier this summer, but would not act on the disaster package until the House voted on the farm bill, leading to the stalemate.

That leaves legislators in farm states such as Minnesota, which generates an estimated $15 billion in annual agricultural sales, in a bind.

More than half the counties in the United States have been designated disaster areas by the Department of Agriculture. Conditions have not reached panic level in Minnesota, but the lack of rain in the state's northwest, southeast and southwest corners have hit livestock producers and dairy farmers especially hard.

"Once again the House will adjourn without finishing its work," Peterson said. "No wonder no one likes Congress."

Peterson debates opponent

Peterson, a 21-year member of Congress who represents a swing district, is one of the most moderate Democrats in Congress and at times sides with Republicans.

The House bill he supports would save an estimated $35billion over the next 10 years by changing price support programs and cutting food stamps. Direct cash payments to farmers also would end.

Historically, allegiances on the House Agriculture Committee more often are a product of geography than party, with politicians from agricultural states banding together with farmers regardless of their affiliation.

Peterson will share the FarmFest stage with his Republican opponent, Lee Byberg, whom he defeated in 2010 with 55 percent of the vote. Byberg says he will look out for family farmers more than Peterson, who he says is too closely tied to the agricultural industry.

Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @CMitchellStrib

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U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson