Minnesota Farmers Union tours state to hear farmer concerns

Gary Wertish Minnesota Farmers Union

New Minnesota Farmers Union President Gary Wertish, a Renville County farmer, recently embarked on a listening tour around the state to hear the concerns of Minnesota Farmers. (Photo from twitter.com)

One of the first things on the to-do list of new Minnesota Farmers Union President Gary Wertish was a series of visits around the state with farmers from across Minnesota. The idea was to get a sense of the concerns facing the state’s farmers as they get set for another growing season in Minnesota.

Wertish said the list of concerns farmers talked about with Farmers Union officials was a lengthy one. Concerns ranged from buffers to health insurance to property taxes to broadband. He says there seems to be a lot on the minds of Minnesota farmers as the turnout at almost every stop was good.

“We had a very good turnout at 15 stops around the state,” Wertish said. “We tried to cover all corners of the state. The smallest attendance was still 30-35 people but we also had a couple meetings that were 60-65 people. In total, roughly 450 people attended, so it made for some good discussion.”

In addition to farmers, a broad section of people turned out for the meetings, ranging from county commissioners, human services employees, people from local food shelves, and even had a couple school administrators. In addition to the usual topics like buffers, health insurance, and property taxes, Wertish said broadband access was brought up at virtually every meeting.

 

Broadband access

 

He said one of the stops was a dairy farm in Goodrich, where the family had just put in a robotic milking system. The couple told people at the meeting they were lucky to have access to high-speed internet, without which they couldn’t have made the switch. A lot of farmers around the rest of the state aren’t as lucky.

“You still have some areas around the state that are using dial-up internet,” Wertish said. “We hear stories of farmers out on tractors using GPS technology that lose their signal when they go down in a ravine. We also heard stories about farmers having to go into the McDonald’s in town to use their Wi-Fi.”

A farmer from Roseau has a son that works in the Twin Cities. His son came for a visit and was trying to do some work online while at the farm. His son spent half a day on work that would normally take him an hour in the Cities because of better broadband access. The son wants to take over the farm but keep his job in the Cities but he can’t do it without better broadband access in rural areas.

 

Health insurance

 

At a meeting in Mankato, a 59-year old farmer stood up to talk about healthcare. He and his wife farmed about 1,500 acres, and they’d been farming all their life. He and his wife could take care of all the work themselves so there was no need for hired help. But, neither one of them could work a job off the farm to provide healthcare.

“He buys insurance through the individual marketplace and his premium bill is $29,000,” Wertish said. “On top that that, the premium comes with a $13,000 deductible. That’s $42,000 combined. Lucky for him, he and his wife have never met their deductible.”

As he worked on cash flows and operating loans in meeting with lenders, they’d tell the farmer to cut expenses. As he looks at the worksheets, the only thing he can cut that’s not returning a chance at a profit is healthcare.

“While not quite that dramatic, we heard similar stories from around the state,” said Wertish. “Farmers are looking at out of control premiums. But to really fix health care, we need to take the politics out of it and we haven’t been able to do that yet.”

One potential solution broached at the state level would be to let people buy into the Minnesota Care program. One reason it’s being discussed is there are over 1 million people enrolled, so the state can use its buying power to control costs somewhat. The additional benefit is more than one health care provider as well, so there is competition for business. Some Minnesota counties often have only one provider.

 

Buffers

 

The state requirement for farmers to have either 16-foot or 50-foot buffers between their farmland and bodies of water has been a contentious issue for months. Due in part to political pressure, the state recently came out with some alternative solutions to the buffer requirements.

“The initial reaction we (Minnesota Farmers Union) have is that it does look like it’ll help,” he said. “The biggest thing that came out of it is the state is giving some flexibility to local Soil and Water officials on how they do things. The state’s comment was ‘if the local Soil and Water officials can come up with a particular solution and defend it, they’ll acknowledge that local plan.’”

Wertish did say the new alternatives aren’t getting rid of the buffers 100 percent, there still may be some areas in the state where they get by with less than what the law requires, depending on the plan. He said it’s very encouraging that some of the control is being put back into local offices.

The biggest complaint farmers had didn’t involve the buffers themselves, but more the way it was handled. The decision came from the top down, so farmers felt left out of the discussions and here came more government regulations without having any farmer input.

 

Mowing ditches

 

Minnesota farmers have been mowing and bailing ditches for a long time. In addition to the obvious benefit of forage for livestock, there’s also the benefit of additional weed control close to their fields. There is a law on the books that says MN-DOT can require a permit to work in the ditches but enforcement has been lax up until recently.

“A few years ago,” Wertish said, “a certain state legislator expressed concerns during a meeting that ‘farmers were getting all this free hay’ when they mowed ditches. He felt farmers were taking advantage of the state by getting all this hay for free.”

Wertish says that’s where the discussion was first brought forward and why it’s going on today. There’s a law on the books that says MN-DOT should require permits to do that, but the Minnesota Farmers Union President said the legislator wanted to charge a fee for the bales.

“Since then, you have the pollinator issue that’s entered it,” he said. “I think all farmers realize we need our pollinators and we have to do what we can. So, it’s a combination of things that’s really brought it forward.”

Farmers are saving MN-DOT a lot of money by not having to mow in certain parts of the state. He says not every ditch in Minnesota is getting mowed. In some areas, it might be tough to get equipment into certain ditches. Wertish said one idea is to make it easier for pollinators to live in ditches like that. It’s important for MN-DOT to bring together all stakeholders and put a plan together.

 

Other topics

 

Transportation funding was a big topic of conversation. Minnesota has aging infrastructure that needs to be repaired and several people at the various meetings said it’s time to put more money into the state’s roads.

Farm bill development was another consistent topic of conversation. Wertish said most farmers told him they didn’t want any more checks from the government. They just wanted to make sure the farm safety net was solid in case of emergencies.

Here the new Minnesota Farmers Union president visiting Joe Gill, KASM radio in Albany, MN.

 

EWG: voluntary conservation isn’t enough

Seven years in the making, EWG’s Conservation Database allows Americans to see exactly where billions of dollars in conservation funding have gone. The data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, is broken down by county.

“Used wisely and with the right incentives, farm conservation programs are making a difference in protecting our health, and improving our quality of life and the environment,” said Craig Cox, EWG Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources. “But we need to focus taxpayer dollars on getting the most effective practices in the right places to address the most urgent threats.”

Data obtained by the EWG through FOIA requests show where federal conservation dollars have been spent on projects, including cover crops.

Data obtained by the EWG through FOIA requests show where federal conservation dollars have been spent on projects, including cover crops.

The data, obtained through 28 FOIA requests over seven years, show that since 2005 farmers and landowners have received $29.8 billion in payments through four initiatives funded by Congress and administered by USDA.

-Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, $318 million

-Conservation Reserve Program, $20 billion

-Environmental Quality Incentives Program, $7.4 billion

-Conservation Stewardship Program, $2.2 billion

The data confirm the growing recognition that voluntary programs alone are insufficient. Voluntary programs in the federal farm bill can play an important role, but they aren’t leading to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment.

“It’s more than fair to expect farmers and landowners to do more to protect the environment in return for the generous farm and insurance subsidies they receive,” Cox said. “Americans across the country are seeing the price of farm pollution firsthand. It’s time for Congress to deliver a return on their tax dollars by requiring farmers who take money from these programs to do more to protect the environment and public health.”

Source: EWG

This article can be found at farmfutures.com

Safety is key when handling anhydrous ammonia

In upcoming weeks, many area farmers will begin spring anhydrous ammonia (ammonia) applications. Serious injuries in Minnesota over the last several years were caused by the mishandling of ammonia.

To stay safe when handling ammonia or performing maintenance on ammonia MDA-logoequipment, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture urges dealers and farmers to:

  • Never wear contact lenses.
  • Always wear ammonia-rated goggles and cuffed gloves.
  • Have an accessible, clean emergency water supply of at least:

Five gallons on each nurse tank; and 150 gallons in an open top container at each storage facility.

  • Never assume ammonia lines are empty.
  • Stand upwind when connecting, disconnecting, bleeding lines, or transferring ammonia.

    Please be safe as you get set to handle anhydrous ammonia applications this spring.  You’re family wants you to be around and healthy for a long time.  (Photo from broome.soil.ncsu.edu)

    Please be safe as you get set to handle anhydrous ammonia applications this spring. You’re family wants you to be around and healthy for a long time. (Photo from broome.soil.ncsu.edu)

  • Positioning ammonia equipment away and downwind from livestock, homes, schools, and other places where people gather.
  • Always handle a hose end valve by the valve BODY.
  • Close, bleed, disconnect, and secure transfer lines when taking breaks, discontinuing application, or transfers.
  • Keep all equipment properly maintained.

Drive sensibly when towing nurse tanks over the road.

  • Travel no faster than 30 miles per hour with a slow-moving vehicle emblem displayed from the rear.
  • The hitch connection must consist of a hitch pin with a retainer clip and two, independent safety chains.

If an accident or spill (incident) occurs, immediately contact: