WASHINGTON – Most every Minnesota politician understands the importance of the state’s agriculture interests.
The state ranks No. 1 in turkey production. It is the third largest producer of spring wheat and whole grains. It ranked in the top 15 nationally for production of cut Christmas trees, poultry, eggs, hay, cow’s milk and pigs. There are more than 74,000 farms in the state and a little more than 10,000 of them are worth more than half a million dollars, according to 2012 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
So what does all this largesse mean here?
Four members on the House Agriculture Committee. (Plus Sen. Amy Klobuchar on the Senate Ag Committee.) That’s a hugely out-sized representation.
To shed some perspective: Minnesota has more members on Ag than California or Texas, both of which have four and six times the number of House members total. Minnesota has Ag representation from the Seventh, Eighth, First and Sixth Congressional Districts, three Democrats and a Republican respectively.
So, what gives? Is that too many?
“Nah,” says Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents the Seventh Congressional District and happens to be the highest ranking Democrat on the committee overall. Peterson, who’s been on Ag for a couple decades now, helped successfully shepherd the farm bill to the president’s desk last year and helped gather support from both GOP House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — no small feat in these times.
“I welcome the fact that these members want to be on the committee,” Peterson said. “Everybody brings a perspective to this based on their district. I got kind of everything in my district. I got dairy, forestry, hogs, turkeys, sugar, corn, soybeans, wheat.”
Peterson continues to monitor the bill’s implementation and continues to fret about the increasing costs. While final numbers are not yet known because farmers are still signing up, Peterson expects the direct payment costs to be higher than projected because crop prices are low. He told a radio news show last week that, for example, in Iowa and Minnesota corn farmers were probably getting $20 an acre in direct payments before, and now they will get $90 an acre under the current farm bill with corn prices at this point.
Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan has sights set on international agriculture interests. He wants to open up agricultural relationships in Cuba with both livestock and corn, wheat and beans. When he was on the Ag Committee during his fist stint in Congress back in the 1970s, he helped write sugar legislation — a responsibility he joked that felt a bit like hazing.
“It was considered a punishment by the chairman,” he said. “You got the Teamsters in Hawaii, the kane growers, the beet growers, the migrant workers in California and then every Carribean nation wanting a quota for importation,” he said. “It was such a colossal can of worms.”
Republican Rep. Tom Emmer, who has been in Congress less than a month, says he is still finding his feet on the complex committee but said he was happy to play a role because “the two main drivers of our economy, you’re talking manufacturing and ag,” he said.
Even though he is the delegation’s lone Republican representative on the committee, Emmer said he is still learning and deferred a question about the cost of the Farm Bill to the elder Peterson.
“I think right now it wouldn’t be fair for me to step in, this (the current Farm Bill) is something that Collin worked on for the last several years,” he said. “I’m not going to respond to that until I know more in detail and I see how it’s working.”
Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, whose district hugs the Iowa border in the state’s southern stretches, said he looked forward to keeping the current Farm Bill in tact — despite its costs.
“When you write the farm bill, you write it for the bad times,” Walz said. “We have to continue to stress the importance of those programs ... This is the time period where it will cost a little more.”