COMMENTARY: An early start for a strong Farm Bill
A sugarbeet grower told us about how crop insurance is working for his farm in the Red River Valley. A school board member in Canby is concerned about meeting the food needs of local families. An ethanol producer shared his plans to expand his operation and hire more workers. And a Morristown turkey grower knows all too well the risks that come in her line of work thanks to outbreaks like the 2015 avian flu.
My staff and I heard these stories and more during our Farm Bill and rural economy tours. We joined with agriculture leaders from around the state and hosted Minnesotans at forums and meetings in sixteen counties to hear their priorities for the next Farm Bill as well as ideas for our rural economy.
Despite recent challenges like the avian flu outbreak, intense flooding, and low commodity prices, Minnesota's 75,000 farms have continued to produce and help feed the world. In order for them to continue meeting those challenges head on, lawmakers need to provide the certainty and stability they need for effective long-term planning. That starts with a strong Farm Bill, which is why I'm kicking off 2017 with a focus on its 2018 reauthorization.
As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I know there's plenty to be proud of in the current Farm Bill.
One provision I worked to pass helps clear the way for more young people who want a career in agriculture. By reducing the cost of insurance and eliminating administrative fees for producers in their first five years, we've reduced barriers to starting a farm and expanded access to crop insurance for young farmers. And cultivating the next generation of farmers is important to the future of our rural economy — the average Minnesota farmer is fifty-five-years-old.
But we know there's room for improvement, too. During our tours, farmers and trade groups underscored the importance of maintaining a strong crop insurance program. They also stressed the need to adjust our dairy and commodity support programs, ensuring they better reflect market realities and are more consistent, county-to-county.
Looking ahead, I want to keep an emphasis on improving our rural development programs, including grants for businesses and housing and water and especially broadband infrastructure.
Expanding access to high-speed internet is one of the best investments we can make. With just a percentage point increase in new broadband distribution, employment expands by 300,000 jobs. Still, more than 50 percent of households in Minnesota townships lack broadband access.
In Marshall, we heard stories about Minnesotans being left to cope without a high-speed connection. Take Nathan Green, who recalled his hopes of moving with his wife Laura and daughter to their family farm. That dream ended when they realized there was no broadband access at the farm. Laura telecommutes for work, and their daughter's education will depend on a high-speed connection — without broadband, the move was a nonstarter.
That's unacceptable. We can do right by our rural communities by seizing the opportunity to expand broadband access through the Farm Bill's Rural Development Title.
And let's help ensure that we remain the top turkey producer in the country and that natural disasters or outbreaks like the avian flu don't spell the end for a family farm by strengthening the safety net and mandatory livestock disaster funding.
Minnesota's agriculture community makes the most of their seasonal opportunities. Nationally, we rank near the top in wheat, corn, and soybean production each year. That strong output is part of a major economic force: Minnesota's agriculture industry is the fifth largest in the country and supports nearly 350,000 jobs across the state.
As I was reminded time and time again across our state, federal agriculture policies matter not just to farmers but to everyone in rural Minnesota. I am committed to working with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle for an even stronger Farm Bill.