WASHINGTON — Rep. Brad Finstad is a fourth-generation farmer and proud of his 700-acre farm near New Ulm, where he grows corn and soybeans.
“I am one of the few real farmers in Congress,” he said.
But, unlike other Minnesota lawmakers, Finstad, R-1st District, has never been in the position he finds himself in now, with the opportunity to shape farm policy for all U.S. farmers and able to look out for the welfare of those in his district and state.
That’s because Finstad is a member of the House Agriculture Committee, which is ramping up its effort to produce a new farm bill, a massive piece of legislation expected to cost about $1.5 trillion that would reauthorize all U.S. Department of Agriculture programs for the next five years.
The legislation is also an opportunity to change, eliminate and add farm programs. Its impact on the nation’s agricultural sector is so powerful that even a slight change in a program could spell the difference between success and failure for many Minnesota producers.
Thanks in part to soaring prices for grain and other farm products, Minnesota’s agriculture production – the sales of sale of corn, soybeans, milk, hogs, chickens and other crops and livestock – resulted in revenues totaling about $19 billion last year, up from about $17 billion in 2020, and is a powerful driver of the state’s economy.
As the new farm bill is hammered out, skirmishes are expected over some programs, including the bill’s massive nutrition title that funds food stamps and other food assistance programs. The state’s sugar beet farmers will also face challenges from “confectioners,” the nation’s big candy makers and food processors over the price of sugar, which the USDA does not allow to fall beyond a minimum.
Pierce Bennett, director of public policy for the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, said his organization has been lobbying for a stronger crop insurance program. The farm bureau is also seeking changes in the Conservation Reserve Program, (CRP) which compensates farmers who remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and/or plant certain species that will improve the environment.
“CRP rates should not be so high that they are competing with rental rates for farm ground,” Bennett said.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Farmers Union, whose 16,000 members own and run small and medium sized farms, are hoping for more money to staff county level USDA offices, which have lost employees due to the pandemic and uncompetitive wages.
Yet, when the dust settles, Finstad expects only “tweaks around the edges” of the 2018 farm bill, which he called “really good” legislation that provides an excellent starting point for the task ahead.
Still, Finstad and other lawmakers are backing the farm bureau’s push for higher “reference prices” that determine the payouts under the USDA crop insurance program, which offsets declines in farm prices or revenue. There are also proposals to extend crop insurance to more specialty crops and make it easier for first time and young farmers to receive USDA loans.
Meanwhile, with milk prices lower than the cost of production for many dairy farmers, there’s an effort to expand the dairy margin coverage program, now limited to the production of 200 cows, to up to 400 cows.
Lucas Sjostrom, the executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, said dairy farms have grown by necessity over the years and a change is needed. “We would love to see that number up,” he said.
Dairy margin coverage is voluntary and pays dairy farmers when the difference, or margin, between the national price of milk and the average cost of feed falls below a certain level.
Despite the lobbying for changes in the new farm bill, Finstad is a realist. He knows that there’s a limit to how much money for the legislation can be authorized and said making changes to the existing farm bill will be a “balancing act.”
“We have to operate within the reality of what we have,” Finstad said.
One place some lawmakers, mostly Republicans, have looked at shifting money from is the nutrition title that funds food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The nutrition title is projected to account for more than 80% of the cost of the next farm bill.
There already has been an intense battle over food stamps in the debt ceiling bill, which incorporated GOP demands for new work requirements for single, childless adults who are 49-year-old to 54-year-old. But there was a new carveout for veterans, homeless individuals and those coming out of foster homes, adults who were previously subject to work requirements, so the move ended up costing – not saving – money, the Congressional Budget Office determined.
So, Republicans like Finstad may move to end SNAP’s pandemic-initiated policy of allowing online home delivery of groceries or state waivers that shielded some beneficiaries from work requirements. Finstad also said he supports more of an effort to require job training for food stamp recipients.
“It should be a hand up, not a handout,” Finstad said of SNAP.
However, efforts to seek savings from the SNAP program will be met with a strong pushback from other lawmakers, especially Senate Democrats.
The 2018 farm bill expires at the end of September, which is the end of the federal fiscal year. While some farm programs are authorized until the end of the year, many lawmakers are hoping a new farm bill will be completed by then.
Despite the massive amount of work ahead, and the likelihood of some disagreements, Finstad is an optimist and expects bipartisan accord.
“I feel very confident we can continue on the path that we are on,” he said. “There’s not enough of us to be fighting each other.”
Minnesota pushing pet legislation in farm bill
Elected last August to fill the seat of the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn, Finstad represents a district that is home to about 35% of the farmers in the state. But he’s not the only Minnesota lawmaker who will have a seat at the table as efforts intensify over the summer to produce a new farm bill.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and will be the highest-ranking Democrat on the panel when it’s current chair, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., retires next year. And Rep. Angie Craig, D-2nd District, is like Finstad, a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
These lawmakers have introduced legislation they hope will make it into a final farm bill.
For instance, Klobuchar is the chief sponsor of the Dairy Nutrition Incentive Program Act of 2023, which would incentivize SNAP purchases of milk, cheese and yogurt. Klobuchar has also sponsored another bill, called the Agriculture Innovation Act of 2023, that would require the USDA to analyze the producer data it collects to assess the impact of farming practices on crop yields, soil health and farm profitability.
Another Klobuchar bill, the Foreign Animal Disease Prevention, Surveillance, and Rapid Response Act of 2023, would boost funding for programs that, among other things, respond quickly to “emerging or existing bioterrorist threats to animal health.”
Meanwhile, Finstad has introduce a bill that would exempt farmers from a new rule issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFBP) that would require new reporting on the financial and demographic data, including race and ethnicity, of those seeking small business loans. The CFPB plans to use the data to create the first comprehensive public database of small business lending practices.
Finstad’s bill, supported by Craig and Reps. Michelle Fischbach, R-7th, would mandate that farm loans be regulated solely by the Farm Credit Administration and would prohibit the implementation of what Finstad calls the CFBP’s “burdensome data collection requirements.” Loan applicants would be able to report their race and/or ethnicity, but that disclosure would be voluntary under Finstad’s bill.
Craig said her focus on the farm bill would be “the next generation of farmers.” To that end, she has introduced a bill, the Crop Insurance for Future Farmers Act, that would provide new producers, beginning farmers and veterans with better access to crop insurance protections.
“As we gear up to write the 2023 Farm Bill, I’m looking to expand the good policies and programs we saw included in 2018,” Craig said.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking toward the Sept. 30 deadline that means an end, at least temporarily, to many existing farm programs. So, there’s some urgency and plenty of lobbying by farmers and farm groups.
“The Minnesota Farm Bureau remains committed to working with our delegation and industry partners to see an on-time farm bill in September,” Bennett said.