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'How are you going to keep farmers farming?' Farmers, lawmakers talk rural Minn. struggles at Farmfest

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Farmers are waiting to hear from members of Congress at Farmfest.
Farmers wait to hear from members of Congress during a listening session at Farmfest in the southern Minnesota town of Morgan on Wednesday.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Minnesota farmers are struggling — and that has implications for rural communities across the state. And while they’ll take help from the government, they’d much rather have strong, reliable markets — here and abroad — for their products. 

Those were among the themes farmers discussed Wednesday during a listening session held at Farmfest, the annual trade show that brings together politicians, farmers and companies that make up the ag industry. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue was on hand, along with five Minnesota members of Congress, including Rep. Collin Peterson, the Democrat who chairs the House ag committee. 

“There’s no secret that farmers have some significant, not only financial but emotional, challenges out there. We’ve had poor weather, low prices, lack of demand because of that trade uncertainty and just a lot of unknowns,” said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau. “We’re in the sixth year in a row of declining farm income and it’s starting to snowball a little bit.” 

Farmfest 2019
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speaks during a listening session at Farmfest on Wednesday.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Earlier this week, China said as part of the ongoing trade war that it would stop buying U.S. agriculture products altogether. 

“This is causing long-term, devastating damage to not only farmers, but rural communities,” said Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. Wertish said temporary payments from the government are helping, but he’s worried there could be long-term political consequences. 

“It’s already being referred to by the public as welfare payments or bailouts,” he said. “The taxpayer isn’t going to stand for this, and we as farmers need our markets.”

Some farmers told Perdue and the lawmakers they feared it may be too late to turn things around. 

“How are you going to keep farmers farming? The markets just aren’t going to be there,”said Joel Schreurs, a soybean grower in Tyler, Minn. 

Perdue said the Trump administration is working on trade deals, and he said he thinks China will come back as a customer when the dispute is settled. 

Meanwhile, “we’re working on markets in India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia,” Perdue said. “We had probably, as an industry, soybeans in particular, become too dependent on one major customer. There’s not a business in here that wants 60 percent of their business going to one customer.”

Farmfest 2019
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., speaks at a listening session at Farmfest Wednesday.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Several dairy farmers thanked the officials for a dairy safety net program in the latest Farm Bill, but Tiffany Knott, a crop and livestock producer who also works in the dairy industry in southwestern Minnesota, said it’s too little too late for some. 

“The dairy industry is really hurting this year. Wisconsin saw it last year in record numbers, selling out, and Minnesota's going to see it this year. We already are,” said Knott, who lives in Wabasso, Minn. “I've had five farms sell out since January."

Peterson defended the program and said he’s surprised only 60 percent of Minnesota dairy farmers have signed up so far, but Knott responded that “farmers do not like handouts” and also don’t know if they’ll be in business long enough to make it worth the effort.

Perdue said he wants dairy farmers who have doubts to contact the USDA. “We’d love the opportunity to show you how to survive in this environment,” he said.

Farmfest 2019
The annual Farmfest gathering of farmers, lawmakers and agriculture industry workers was held in Morgan this week.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Some farmers also asked the secretary to try to get the president to change his rhetoric. Last month, Trump tweeted that farmers are “starting to do great again.” 

“We’re not starting to do great again. Things are going downhill, and downhill very quickly,” said Brian Thalmann, who grows corn and soybeans in Plato, Minn., and is president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. 

“I hope when these trade deals get completed there will be a place for my son and everybody else’s sons and daughters to still be involved in agriculture, and I fear that if we don’t make some progress soon,” he said, “we’re all going to be continually in trouble.”

Voices from Farmfest

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Dunbar talked to farmers and others in the ag industry at Farmfest in Morgan about what’s on their minds as the summer unfolds. Top of mind: The escalating trade war with China, tariffs, tough weather and low commodity prices. But intermixed with the worry was a lot of hope — and the ways people are finding to work together during uncertain times.

Eric Binford, Luverne: “It’s not like it was four or five years ago”

Farmers are waiting to hear from members of Congress at Farmfest.
Eric Binford with sons Caleb, 11, left, and Matthew, 16, at Farmfest on Wednesday.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News
Listen: Eric Binford grows corn and soybeans and runs a feedlot outside Luverne, Minn.
by Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Theresia Gillie, Hallock: “We’d like to have trade and not aid”

Theresia Gillie
Theresia Gillie, here in an undated photo, talked with MPR News reporter Elizabeth Dunbar at Farmfest Wednesday.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association
Listen: Theresia Gillie farms 950 acres of wheat and soybeans in Kittson County.
by Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Dennis Schmitz, Brooten: “It struggles with the low commodity prices”

Brent Maygard, left, of Sunburg, and Dennis Schmitz of Brooten.
Brent Maygard, left, of Sunburg, Minn., and Dennis Schmitz of Brooten, Minn., attend Farmfest on Wednesday.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News
Listen: Dennis Schmitz grows corn and soybeans in Stearns County.
by Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

What do you want to know about farming?