Minn. farmers are in D.C. to talk to officials. Here's what's on their minds
It's been 30 years since Keith Speltz's last trip to Washington, D.C.
"The old saying was, 'If farmers were doing well, the economy is doing well,'" he said Tuesday, before boarding a flight to Washington with three dozen Minnesota Farmers Union members and staff. "But that's not the case anymore."
So he decided it would be a good time for a check in with his elected officials and ask them to act on behalf of farmers like him.
"It's a lot tougher to make a dollar today than it was back in the day," Speltz, from Altura, Minn.
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There's a lot at stake for farmers right now: The end of September marks the expiration of the farm bill, the key piece of legislation designed to support farmers through uncertainties like bad weather and volatile commodity prices. Meanwhile, a trade war rages on, affecting the prices of everything from soybeans to pork, with the fall harvest right around the corner.
"We're talking about all of our top priorities all at the same time," said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, which is separately sending 20 members to Washington this week.
Here's a summary of some of the top issues farmers will be discussing with elected officials:
The farm bill
A House-Senate conference committee is working on a compromise for the new farm bill, which would replace the one that's been in place since 2014 and is set to expire Sept. 30.
The farm bill covers food stamps, safety net programs for farmers and programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to keep some of their land wild to benefit wildlife rather than growing row crops on it.
Minnesota farmers are watching to see whether the farm bill will protect them from price risks and trade wars. Some are also wondering whether payments they're receiving from one program — the Conservation Stewardship Program — will continue or go away, as some politicians have proposed.
Chinese tariffs on soybeans and pork are of particular concern to Minnesota farmers, but other agriculture products, like milk, are also seeing low prices, in part because of trade disputes.
A huge percentage of Minnesota-grown soybeans are exported, and there isn't enough domestic demand to make up the difference. Farmers are urging their elected officials to iron out trade agreements to ensure they have access to export markets.
A labor shortage in many parts of the U.S., including Minnesota, has prompted some industries to urge Congress to forge an agreement on immigration reform.
While most political observers say such an agreement won't happen until after the 2018 elections, farmers still plan to bring up the issue with their elected representatives. A labor shortage is making it hard for producers to find farm workers, and farmers are looking to immigrant groups to staff their operations.
The Trump administration has been rolling back several regulations that affect farmers, including the Waters of the U.S. rule, an Obama-era policy aimed to protect certain lakes, rivers and streams. Some farmers didn't like it because it placed limits on where and how they could grow crops.
Farmers are also watching the administration's changes to the federal Endangered Species Act. After a series of court battles, wolves remain protected in Minnesota, which means farmers can't kill them even if they are threatening livestock.
Corn and soybean growers who sell their grain to ethanol plants want that market to expand, especially with trade disputes threatening export markets.
The Environmental Protection Agency oversees the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, which regulates ethanol production and use. Many farmers want consumers to be able to purchase a 15 percent-blend of ethanol for their vehicles year-round. Right now, the EPA limits consumers' access to E15 fuel because of concerns about air quality.
Correction (Sept. 17, 2018): An earlier version of this story misspelled Keith Speltz's name. The story has been updated.