There’s no time like the present for the Farm Bill to blossom

 Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

A group of Minnesota farmers visited Washington last week and the luck of perfect timing was with them–the all too brief yearly arrival of the storied cherry blossoms lent their beauty to the avenues of the capital. The group took it as a hopeful sign that the luck of good timing might extend to the quest for a new Farm Bill, which people across the Farm Belt regard as something that will find a better resolution the sooner it comes to fruition.

In the course of two-and-a-half days, the delegation made the rounds and visited with more than a hundred legislators who fill key positions when it comes to setting agriculture policy. Minnesota corn farmers Greg Schwarz, John Mages, Noah Hultgren, Tom Haag and DeVonna Zeug were joined by Elizabeth Tanner, MCGA director of government relations and strategic relationships.

The Minnesota group joined forces with members of the Southwest Council of Agribusiness–farmers and business people from Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico brought together with MCGA by the advocacy firm employed by both groups, Combest-Sell Associates.

“This partnership with Southwest Council of Agribusiness (SWCA) is a great asset,” said John Mages, a farmer in Belgrade (Stearns County) who serves as president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “We go in together into senators’ and congress members’ offices and they are impressed when they see us working together, representing so many different groups within agriculture, all of us seeking the same thing–a farm bill that gives us options and protects crop insurance.”

Southwest Council of Agribusiness includes mainstreet ag businesses like farm implement dealers and banks, along with commodity groups for rice, cotton, sorghum, and corn.

“We have a lot more in common–Minnesota farmers and southwest farmers–than people tend to believe,” observed DeVonna Zeug, a farmer in Walnut Grove and past president of MCGA. “Our main goal for the farm bill is to make sure we have one that has options, and one in which crop insurance is safe. We presented a Farm Bill concept to the Super Committee (for Deficit Reduction) last fall that offered a cut of $23 billion over ten years, and now we’re being asked to make even steeper cuts in the budget proposed by Congressman Ryan–$33 billion over ten years. It’s so important for farmers to get in and tell our stories to the legislators, to make the case for what we need.”

Mages noted that for two of the Minnesota group–Tom Haag of Eden Valley and Noah Hultgren of Willmar–this was a first taste of this kind of intense lobbying.

“It was a good experience for them to have,” said Mages. “This is where you can really make your leadership count.”

The group visited key members of agriculture committees in both chambers, as well as transportation, ways and means and others committees central to the farm bill process.

“Some (lawmakers) were bleak, some were more positive about the chances of getting a Farm Bill done this year,” said Zeug. “The Senate will get its version done first and hopefully they will have a good enough bill to go to House. They are thinking it might not come in until lame duck (after the November elections, but before new officials take office). An extension is possible, but no one really wants to do that–we will if we have to.”

The arrival of growing season–a solid winter crop season–makes a timely farm bill even more pressing for the delegation from the southwest.

“Coming from a lenders perspective in Texas, they start planting wheat in September, and decisions need to be made,” Zeug reported. “They need something to go on and if there isn’t a farm bill they get very skeptical and nervous about how the political process will affect their farmers.”

Corn Congress–the annual Washington meeting of National Corn Growers Association in July, is the next time Minnesota farmers will have an in-person opportunity to encourage further development of the Farm Bill.

“It was a very successful week, we covered a lot of ground,” said Mages.

“We strengthened the relationships with these other farm groups, which over the long haul is going to help us keep agriculture strong everywhere in America,” said Zeug.

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