Tina Smith: First open the government, then implement the new Farm Bill
It's no secret that farmers in Minnesota and across the country have been rocked by low crop and dairy prices, and a crippling trade war that has blocked billions of dollars in sales of U.S. farm products abroad.
So, the last thing our farm economy needs as we move into new year is to have the federal government shut down.
For me, job one in the new Congress is to end this wasteful and unnecessary shutdown that is hurting hundreds of thousands of federal workers and low-income federal contractors, who have been working for weeks without pay.
But beyond that, the shutdown is having a devastating impact on Minnesota producers who are finding county Farm Services Agency (FSA) offices shuttered. One Minnesota farmer said recently that lack of access to FSA services simply "adds insult to injury."
I recently heard from a Minnesota farm family who sold half their calf crop late last year but can't get the funds from the sale until the FSA is reopened. The money represents a large part of their yearly income.
And, I have talked with struggling Minnesota dairy producers, who have been hit hard by falling dairy prices. During the Farm Bill debate, I worked with both Democrats and Republicans to improve dairy provisions that focus assistance on small and medium size farms. But due to the shutdown, dairy farmers will not be able to access and enroll in this much needed safety net.
That's why I'm going to continue to push hard on the president and congressional leaders to come together to get the government open, so that it can once again deliver all of the services people in our state and across the country have paid for and have come to rely upon.
A stronger dairy and crop safety net
With so much uncertainty roiling the farm economy, it's more important than ever to get the 2018 Farm Bill implemented. When the measure was signed into law in late December, it was the culmination of many months of hard work and compromise that will bring some much-needed certainty to struggling producers.
For Minnesota, where agriculture creates $121 billion in economic activity and supports 400,000 jobs, the five-year measure will be critically important to our state's economic future. For Congress, getting the bipartisan bill over the finish line also showed that our country can accomplish important things when we work together.
When I first arrived in the Senate last year, I fought for a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, so I could push to make sure Minnesota's priorities were included in the Farm Bill.
To define those priorities, I needed to hear from Minnesotans. I quickly formed a 30-member Farm Bill working group made up of not only farm and community leaders, but also experts in rural economic development, energy, conservation, nutrition, forestry, and tribal concerns — all of whom had a stake in making sure the Farm Bill works for our state.
With their guidance, I visited farms and communities to hear from Minnesotans and bring their voices back to the Senate. When I was working in Washington, D.C., I directed my staff to continue these listening sessions — and in all, we led nearly 50 meetings across Minnesota.
Those meetings paid off, as the final Farm Bill reflects much of what Minnesotans told me they needed. Several provisions that I authored or championed were included in the final measure, including my work to increase the use of renewable energy, and my provision to expand access to much-needed broadband service to rural communities and tribal areas.
Importantly, it strengthens the farm safety net, including crop insurance and other tools to safeguard farmers from unexpected losses. The bill also funds my efforts to help younger and non-traditional farmers — including returning veterans — get started in farming, and it responds to my call to preserve the Sugar Program, which supports thousands of jobs across the Red River Valley.
Fighting to lower health care costs
During this fall's harvest, I rode in a combine with a southern Minnesota farmer as he gathered some of the final acres of his soybean crop. During the visit, he described how ever-rising health care costs are also hurting producers and their families.
That's why I worked with my Republican and Democratic colleagues during Farm Bill negotiations to create a new Rural Health Liaison position at USDA, who will work with other federal health officials to address rural America's unique health care needs.
Bringing down health care costs — especially the skyrocketing price of prescription drugs — will continue to be one of my top Senate priorities.
We still have a lot a work to do to get the government reopened and the farm economy back on its feet. The new Farm Bill will help add much-needed certainty to Minnesota's economy.
(Tina Smith represents Minnesota in the U.S Senate)