Congress is gearing up to debate a new farm bill in 2018. The current law provides about $100 billion a year for commodity payments, crop insurance subsidies, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, and a wide variety of other programs. Minnesota Farmers Union President Gary Wertish talked about that recently, as well as other issues facing farmers this year. The Farmers Union represents about 10,000 farmer members in the state, and advocates for state and federal agricultural programs and policies along with the Minnesota Farm Bureau and many other groups. His remarks have been edited for space and clarity.
Q: How are farmers positioned financially, coming into 2018?
A: We’ve had three or four years now of low commodity prices and high inputs. The working capital that was built up in 2012 when we had profitable years, that working capital is all gone. Luckily the majority of the state had a pretty nice crop [in 2017] so that’ll help some. But there’s going to be some farmers and some bankers that are going to be facing some hard decisions.
Q: Are there particular segments of the farm economy that you are most concerned about?
A: It’s pretty widespread, but the one that’s probably in the most trouble is dairy. We’ve lost a lot of dairy farms in what’s really a short amount of time. Even though they have lower costs for feed grain, the problem is just the low price of what they’re getting for their milk. In the federal farm bill there’s the milk margin program to assist them, but that really didn’t work out so well.
Q: How important will 2018 be for farmers in terms of events and policy?
A: It’ll be very important. We’ve got the 2014 farm bill that expires at the end of September. It’s obviously important to get a new one in place. One of the issues we hope to address is to get a little more support for dairy. And we’d like to see a little bit higher reference prices that are figured in some of the commodity payments. But it’s going to be a tough sled because they’re talking about writing a farm bill with the same amount of dollars as previously, and we need more.
Q: How about the trade issue?
A: We’ve always supported fair trade agreements. At one time we agreed that NAFTA needs to be renegotiated, but at the same time the [Trump] administration’s approach has not exactly been what we’re looking for. It seems like there’s no follow-through. We’re still getting mixed signals, and that creates uncertainty in the markets that puts downward pressure on the prices. We’re hopeful that we can get some progress moving forward, especially now with the high surplus of our commodities throughout the country.
Q: Is that also true for exports to Asia?
A: Whether it’s bilateral or other agreements, we still have to work hard and we can’t isolate ourselves. We can’t just pull back. Right now, with our huge surpluses, any trade agreement or movement to do more exports is going to help. And China is stepping forward now. The countries that are buying are trying to buy as cheap as they can. We have to realize that we’re competing with other countries that have just as good a quality of product as we do. We also need to increase the domestic use of our commodities as much as we can.
Q: So you’re talking about ethanol?
A: Renewable fuels play an important part in our rural economy. We have 20 ethanol plants in Minnesota and we’ve done very well in renewable fuels, so we want to keep that support growing. The president, when he was campaigning, talked about his support for renewable fuels. But some of the people [President Tump] put in cabinet positions have a history of opposing renewable fuels, so there’s some concern about how that’s going to work out. If we’re moving to cellulosic [ethanol] or an advanced grade of biofuels, we need investment and a commitment for research dollars to keep improving, and that’s tough to get if there’s uncertainty.
Q: What about labor and immigration reform?
A: Immigration has a big effect on our food supply. It’s especially important for livestock producers, and a lot of the fruit and vegetable farmers in Minnesota are facing a similar issue: getting adequate labor to plant and harvest crops. Even with mechanization, that hasn’t been able to replace the need for workers. We also have an aging population so in a lot of cases there are just not enough workers left to do the labor. Obviously they need to get paid a higher wage, a living wage, but the labor force is still short. It’s been a political football like a lot of issues for a long time, and it needs to move forward.
Q: Is infrastructure improvement on the list?
A: We haven’t invested enough in roads, bridges, broadband and education. At a state level we’ve kicked that can down the road so long that you can’t do that any more. We have to get serious and address that issue and take it on because it affects everyone out there, not just the farmer getting their product to town.