Farmer discontent with Congress seems to be growing almost as quickly as Minnesota's corn and soybean fields. The unhappiness is aimed at lawmakers' inability to pass the central piece of the nation's agricultural policy, the farm bill.
Walk down the streets of Farmfest in southwest Minnesota and you'll hear some of that unhappiness.
There are shiny new tractors, grain bins, and other symbols of modern agriculture. But stop a farmer and ask a question about the bill, and you're likely to get another see another expression of today's agriculture. Usually it's a roll of the eyes, a slight smile, or a shoulder shrug.
One of those farmers, Chad Groskreutz, of southern Minnesota, just gives a slight shake of his head before he talks.
"They know what they need to do, they just refuse to do it," said Groskreutz. "For political purposes, or grandstanding or whatever it is. We need something in place."
Ask him how the inaction affects his farm and he's got an answer. He points to conservation steps he's taken. Groskreutz has installed grass strips along some of his drainage ditches to slow erosion. The grassy areas trap soil particles before they wash into the ditch and eventually downstream into rivers. Federal programs help pay part of the installation cost. He'd like to put in more grass strips. But he's holding off because he's not sure if the next farm bill will have money to help farmers offset the expense.
"If those programs aren't there, you can't keep on with that stuff," said Groskreutz.
He's diplomatic. He just says he hopes Congress will act. But other farmers were not so nice. One called federal lawmakers a bunch of clowns, and another said Congress is putting party principals above the good of the nation.
Banker Doug Lago said the lending industry is also closely watching farm bill developments. He works for Mankato-based United Prairie Bank, which loans nearly $300 million a year to farmers and other agricultural businesses, and says the federal farm bill is an important tool in helping to stabilize farm finances. He says the government role is needed because farmers have little control over how much they're paid for their work.
"It's the only industry that I know of that doesn't set it's own price," said Lago. "You go to buy a pair of shoes or something at a store, there's not a lot of negotiation. But when you grow a crop or you have livestock you take it to the elevator or to the sale barns, the packer; they set the price."
Farm income has been strong the past several years, mainly because of high grain prices. But those prices are falling now and farmers say that demonstrates the economic uncertainties the farm bill helps them cope with. But so far there's no sign Congress will act. At a Farmfest issues forum on the situation, Windom area farmer Andy Olson voiced the frustration he said many farmers feel.
"I'm sure everyone here is asking the question: how could we get so screwed up in this country," said Olson. "It's become so acrimonious and hostile and it seems like people can't agree."
It was a question no one had an answer to, even those in the middle of the battle to pass a new farm bill. Minnesota U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said Congress has many hurdles to cross before it gets close to passing farm legislation. One of the biggest issues is what, if any, cuts should be made in the food stamp program, which traditionally has been part of the farm bill.
"So the question is when are we going to get this done, or are we going to get this done," said Peterson. "My honest answer is 'I don't know'".
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a DFLer who represents the 1st Congressional District, told a Farmfest issues forum that Congress needs to compromise.
"I will do anything I can," said Walz. "I will leave things out on the table, I will compromise. I want to help speaker [John Boehner] get the job done for America and get it right. I'm not going to lock myself in, I'm not going to have these rigid ideology. It just needs to do what you sent us to do."
Congress also deadlocked a year ago on the farm bill, eventually passing a one year extension of the 2008 farm program. Peterson says another one year extension is a likely path again this year for the deadlocked Congress.