When Congress returns to Washington, D.C., from summer recess, one item on its to-do list is critical for farmers in Minnesota — the farm bill.
As residents of the second-largest pork-producing state, Minnesotans understand that the Trump administration's disputes with China, Canada and Mexico are costing farmers billions in lost pork exports. But what many may not know is that pig farmers are facing other major challenges — two that can be fixed through provisions of the farm bill and a third being addressed with separate legislation currently pending in Congress.
Set to expire on Sept. 30, the farm bill presents a perfect opportunity for lawmakers, including two from Minnesota serving on the farm bill's House conference committee, Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz, to alleviate pain for the livestock industry caused by the trade war.
Here's where pig farmers in Minnesota need help:
The top priority is a vaccine bank for Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD), which can affect cattle, dairy cows, pigs and sheep. Think bird flu, only worse.
Currently, the United States can only handle a very small, localized outbreak. Livestock farmers likely wouldn't receive a vaccine for weeks for a small outbreak and months for a large outbreak, which is more than enough time for the disease to devastate Minnesota's farmers.
There are over 8 million pigs and more than 20,000 pork- and pig-farming-related jobs in Minnesota alone. The costs of an FMD outbreak would be astronomical. But it wouldn't hurt only Minnesota's agriculture sector — it would affect the entire country.
To ensure that the U.S. is fully prepared for an FMD outbreak, the farm bill must include $150 million to fund a national vaccine bank, plus set-asides for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network to conduct disease diagnostics, and for state animal health agencies to prepare for a foreign animal-disease emergency.
In addition, the farm bill must include the Protecting Interstate Commerce Act. This provision prevents states from dictating the production practices of farms outside their borders.
Already, Massachusetts passed a law prohibiting the sale of pork, eggs and veal produced using certain methods, even when produced in states other than Massachusetts. California has an initiative on the state's ballot in November that will do the same. These laws not only violate the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause — which grants Congress the sole power to regulate trade among the states — but also results in higher food costs and a reduction in choices for the American consumer. In order to be in compliance with these laws, pig farmers and American consumers will be burdened with billions in additional costs.
The Protect Interstate Commerce Act would make it unlawful for states to impose regulations outside their borders, returning the freedom of food choice to the consumer, where it rightfully belongs.
The last issue is the labor shortage. Every position on a farm is critical, but farmers across our state do not have a consistent source of skilled and trained labor. This undermines their ability to meet demand, keep products affordable and continue providing the highest standards of animal care.
Two pieces of pending visa reform legislation can provide immediate relief if passed by Congress. The first is the Newhouse-Cuellar Amendment in the House Homeland Security appropriations bill, which allows farmers to use the existing H-2A visa program year-round instead of only for seasonal labor. The second is the AG and Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 6417), which would create a new H-2C visa program that would allow nonseasonal agricultural workers to remain in the United States for up to three years.
These solutions are all endorsed by the National Pork Producers Council, an organization that works to ensure that the U.S. pork industry, including 3,000 Minnesotan pig farms, remains a consistent and responsible supplier of high-quality pork to domestic and international markets.
It's clear — Minnesota's farmers need relief, and they need it fast.
Greg Boerboom is president of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association and a pig farmer from Marshall, Minn.