U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Detroit Lakes, one of the most powerful figures in Congress, told farmers on Tuesday that he doesn't think the federal government should increase farm spending when it puts together the 2012 farm bill.
Speaking at Farmfest, the annual trade show near Redwood Falls, the seventh district congressman told a crowd of several hundred farmers that given the demands on federal spending, Congress cannot boost funding.
"We're going to keep this farm bill within the spending; we're not going to ask for any new money," said Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. "I think we can make it work."
The current farm bill is only in its third year, but Congress is already looking ahead to its next five-year agricultural support program --- a hot topic at Farmfest.
At the trade show, companies selling agricultural equipment have set up long rows of merchandise -- tractors, combines, grain bins. But one of the biggest players in agriculture has one of the smallest, out of the way installations.
Tucked away from the main crowds are the informational stands housing federal farm officials.
"If there's anything you're wondering about please contact Farm Service Agency, our staff would be happy to help out," said Linda Hennen, executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Minnesota.
Hennen and her staff are at Farmfest to answer questions from a steady stream of farmers. Programs managed by the Farm Service and other agencies pay out about $16 billion a year to U.S. farmers. About $1 billion of that goes to Minnesota producers.
The programs are meant to provide an economic safety net for farmers, to help them through down years. Just a block or so away from the federal booths at Farmfest, Peterson and other congressional candidates debated the role federal farm programs should play in agriculture.
One of Peterson's opponents in the 7th District race said he would impose further restraints on agricultural spending.
Independent candidate Glen Menze said Congress should consider ending some farm subsidy programs, particularly the program known as direct payments. It gives farmers a set payment each year, no matter how much money they make on their crops in the market place.
Menze said many people see that type of subsidy as an unfair handout to farmers.
"The public is getting really tired of direct payments to farmers and its really bad p.r. that we've stayed this long with it that way," Menze said. "They will tell you that is what they dislike most about farmers are the free subsidies."
Peterson said it would be very difficult to end the direct payments as federal lawmakers from the south like the program and want to keep it. His position that agricultural spending should be frozen in the 2012 farm bill reflects a new budget reality compared to the last time Congress dealt with the issue. In 2007, the economy was still basically healthy.
Iowa State University economics professor Bruce Babcock said several years of recession have changed that. The struggling economy has increased the federal debt and public concern about federal spending, such as the money put towards agricultural programs, he said.
"Refocusing on the importance of getting federal deficits under control will start getting more people to think about if our tax payer dollars are being well spent," Babcock said.
Many farmers believe that while the government checks won't be growing, federal officials will be more attentive to how farmers spend the money they do receive.
Southern Minnesota farmer Dennis Huebsch said the public is going to want to know whether farmers are putting the federal subsidies to good use.
"When you get something for nothing there's a payback," he said.
Huebsch said the pattern is already clear: In exchange for federal subsidies farmers have had to pay closer attention to things like soil erosion and other environmental concerns.
He said containing soil erosion is a good thing, but that's something farmers can handle on their own without federal regulations.
Huebsch also worries that the increasing budget pressures will lead to more government intervention in a sector that has long prized its independence.