Archive for the ‘Legislative’ Category

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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Grower leaders talk issues with lawmakers during 2012 Day on the Hill

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Biofuels and water quality rules. These are two issues dealing the highest impact to farmers and rural communities in Minnesota and so farmers went to the Minnesota State Legislature to attend hearings and speak with lawmakers and ask their support for the farmers’ positions on several key pieces of legislation in these areas.

An MCGA delegation headed up by MCGA President John Mages of Belgrade (Stearns County) attended a hearing on biofuels legislation to support the Ethanol Requirement Extension (HF2741), which extends Minnesota’s ethanol 20% ethanol requirement by 3 years.  Without this change, the requirement will expire, perhaps before federal approval can be gained for E20 as a standard gasoline blend. Rep. Paul Anderson, author of the bill, spoke at the hearing and Mages also offered testimony. Representatives from the biobutanol industry were seeking a change in Anderson’s bill to include the new biofuel, also produced from corn. Mages offered the MCGA position that it would be better to hold off-session hearings with all the stakeholders rather than changing the language of the extension bill right now.

“It was helpful that we had 15 people in the room,” said Elizabeth Tanner, director of advocacy and strategic partnerships for Minnesota Corn Growers Association. If you do have good representation at a hearing it does help your cause.”

The delegation included several staff, three student ‘agvocates’ and a dozen MCGA grower leaders.

“MCGA Day on the Hill went really well,” said Tanner. “It’s about making connections and those connections lead to more connections–this is the way you let your representatives know that you know what’s happening and that you follow what they are doing. Senator (Julie) Rosen bumped into us, and said she really liked seeing our group up there at the capital. She chatted with us, gave us a quick update, and listened to our concerns, and then she went back to the session. She let another senator on the floor know that one of our grower leaders, a constituent of his, was waiting out in the hall, so that senator came right out and talked to us.”

Another important element of Day on the Hill is educating grower leaders about the legislative process and about the work that political advocates are carrying forward on behalf of MCGA.

“We employ full time lobbyists and it’s important for the grower leaders to see how that investment is paying off for the group’s 6,000 farmer members across the state,” said Tanner.

The group also spoke to their home legislators in support of two bills having to do with wetlands, introduced by Senator Gary Dahms: a Wetlands Bill (SF2072) to increase the size of land eligible for the de minimis exemptions for class 1, 2, 6, and 7 wetlands and another bill to exempt farmers from the Wetlands Conservation Act if they are complying with the federal wetlands protection laws known as Swampbuster. (SF2042, Sponsor: Dahms).

Another highlight of the day was an hour long briefing with State Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson. The Minnesota Corn organizations’ board and council had met with Frederickson the day before, but this session proved to be a valuable follow up. The commissioner and the leaders held a lengthy discussion about the Memo of Understanding between the state of Minnesota and the Federal EPA and USDA to launch a pilot conservation program geared to water quality outcomes where Frederickson assured them that “we don’t want to cause economic pain with this program–if there is pain here we want to get rid of it. At the end of the day everybody’s got to earn a living. We just want to identify best management practices” in order to reward those through this program.

Former MCGA president Doug Albin said, “This is a good time for farmers to look at conservation practices. We have money to spend and we are willing to spend it.”

Former NCGA and MCGA President Gerald Tumbleson said, “America was built on one word. Innovation… We are just concerned that whatever program is put in place, we are allowed the room to change and grow. We don’t know what tomorrow’s best management practices will be, and trying new things is the only way to find out.”

Legislative reception draws a non-partisan crowd to talk turkey with farmers

Senator Keith Langseth, the oldest, and longest serving member of the Minnesota Legislature stood up at the Crowne Plaze Saint Paul last Wednesday night and thanked Minnesota Corn Growers Association for hosting its legislative reception, so that he and fellow state lawmakers could get to know their farmer constituents better and keep abreast of the latest issues impacting farmers.

Langseth didn’t waste time, but launched right into a question impacting farmers across the state—property taxes. He noted that his own property taxes on his farm land rose 18 percent this year and he explained that last year’s budget fix involved a shift. The state ended its homestead tax credit but, in order to limit the impact on homeowners they made a blanket reduction in the tax valuation of residential properties, and this meant that farm and commercial properties then shouldered more of the burden for local levies.

“That’s an issue we are going to revisit this year,” Langseth promised.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Policy and Finance committee told the room of farmers and legislators, “We all have an open door policy…stop in and see us whenever you are here in St. Paul, or if you have a burning issue, please call us and let us know,”

The evening, held at the Kellogg meeting room and offering a buffet and refreshments in exchange for a donation to cover the expense, was a great success.

MCGA President John Mages, a farmer in Belgrade, felt that all the lawmakers were receptive to conversations about farm issues and hearing the farmer viewpoint.

The event did get off to a slow start, because the House of Representatives remained in session into the evening, debating bills related to tort reform. Toward 8 o’clock, the session adjourned and a score of representatives appeared, to join the dozen or more senators already present and enjoying conversations with grower leaders from every part of Minnesota.

“This is an informal setting, which is a great way to meet these lawmakers and spend some time getting to know them and telling them about our issues,” said Jean Knakmuhs, a director for Minnesota Corn Growers Association. In addition to farming near Walnut Grove, she is a loan officer with Rabo AgriFinance.  She said, “Unlike an appointment at their office at the capital, here, there are no time constraints and the next person on the schedule is not waiting outside the door.”

Senator John Howe opined “We need more people with a farm background at the Legislature.”

Today’s demographic realities make that unlikely, so the MCGA legislative reception, the annual “Day On The Hill” event and informal visits throughout the session, have to make up the lack of direct connection of many lawmakers to farming.

Senator Doug Magnus said that now that the state had sorted out its finances and gotten past the $5 billion dollar deficit that loomed last year, the Legislature can concentrate on “the three E’s that are vital to agriculture: Energy, Exports and the Environment.”

Exports will play a key role in farm prosperity in the coming decades because Minnesota’s farmers have the know-how and the productive land, and the world will need more food every day.

“In the next 40 years, the earth has to produce more food than we have produced in the past 10,000 years—supporting what you (farmers do) and supporting exports” will be critical to ensuring that this happens, Magnus said.

The environment is truly a hot-button issue in agriculture, Magnus acknowledged and he asserted that the farmers’ story of all the good work they are already doing in conservation is an important story that needs to reach the wider public so that public policy regarding farmers remains balanced.

“Our biggest issue right now is water quality,” said MCGA President Mages. “We (the farmers) are working on it. We are conservationists and we do want to preserve the quality of the environment. We will continue to do more and improve, but we will also fight to keep conservation on a voluntary basis. Every farmer wants to be involved, but not every farm is the same and treating every farm the same will not help us achieve our environmental goals as a state.”

Republican State Rep. Paul Torkelson and Democratic State Senator Terry Morrow both weighed in on the recent controversy regarding a Memo of Understanding between the federal government and the state of Minnesota, to launch a pilot program to help direct investments in farm conservation that will improve water quality. Both lawmakers told the grower leaders that it is important for them to participate in the process and have a voice in the program that is shaped by the technical advisory committee now being drawn together, in order to have a say in the design of the new conservation program.

In addition to legislators, a host of state government officials, including Paul Aasen (director, MPCA), and Matt Wohlman (Assistant Commissioner, MDA) as well as staff members from US Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken attended the evening, among them former House Ag chairman Al Juhnke, who is currently Senator Franken’s ag and energy field representative.

Leaders of other farmer groups and agribusinesses rounded out the group, with appearances by Perry Aasness, executive director of Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, and Sarah Thorn, government affairs manager for DuPont/Pioneer.