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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.