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Farmers look to Washington with concern

President Donald Trump speaks to the crowd during a rally at Amsoil Arena June 20, 2018, in Duluth, Minn. While there, he discussed trade policies. Bob King / Forum News Service

WASHINGTON—Farmers usually worry about the weather and how much they will be paid for crops and livestock, but this summer many have a bigger worry: What federal officials will do for—or to—them.

Farm-state lawmakers who deal with federal agriculture policy every day can do nothing to relieve farmer concerns.

"No one has any answers and no one knows what is going on because things change every day," said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who serves western Minnesota and is the top House agriculture Democrat. "Every single aspect of agriculture is up in the air."

Usually when a farm bill is being debated, that grabs the attention of most farmers, interested in what new agriculture policies and payments may come out of Washington. Not so this year.

"I have gotten almost no calls from my district for the farm bill. but I have got a lot of them about the (ethanol standards) ... and they are extremely concerned about the trade stuff."

The farm bill is the best farm news coming from Washington, but it is not a done deal. The House and Senate need to work out major differences after both chambers passed their own versions.

Another issue, in corn-growing areas especially, is the Trump administration allowing some refineries not to blend corn-based ethanol into gasoline.

"It is a huge amount of money involved and he has been tilted toward the oil companies," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said about Administrator Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency.

About 1 billion barrels of biofuels like ethanol and soybean-based biodiesel will not be required to be sold, the senator said, which is about as much as Minnesota produces.

Professor David Ripplinger of North Dakota State University said the waivers, meant for small refineries that cannot blend biofuels, seldom have been used,.

"it is a big deal," Ripplinger said. "We use about a third of our corn crop to produce biofuel."

Klobuchar said she cannot get a list of companies given the waivers, but she plans to force the issue.

For many in agriculture a still bigger issue is trade.

President Donald Trump is placing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, meaning those imported products will be more expensive in the United States. That is an effort to help industries like northeast Minnesota's taconite mines, which produce pellets that become steel.

However, China and other countries say they will slap their own tariffs on goods Americans sell to them, particularly pork, soybeans and other agriculture products.

NDSU crops economist Frayne Olson said that "at this point it is all politics," which makes it impossible to predict what will happen with prices."I think it will be continued volatility."

It is not just China trade. Adding to the uncertainty are talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Trump has said he may pull out of the agreement. Canada and Mexico are the United States' two biggest buyers of many farm products and could place tariffs on American goods if the agreement falls apart..

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has been saying the administration will make sure farmers are not hurt in a trade war, but Peterson is worried. He said he fears Trump will make one-time payments to farmers instead of a long-term fix.

"I don't know where Sonny Perdue thinks the federal government will get this money," said President Gary Wertish of the Minnesota Farmers' Union, speaking by telephone from Germany where he was visiting energy sites.

He added that soybean prices already have dropped 25 percent, mostly due to the tariff threat. And other commodity prices, such as for pork and dairy, also are falling.

Wertish's vice president, Bryan Klabunde, said he sees good crop yields this year, which will lower prices below that of a trade war's impact.

While Klabunde and others said a farm bill cannot compensate for low prices a trade war could bring, new farm policies and money affect farmers. House and Senate versions of the bill now head into negotiations that could be difficult.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he already has talked to Senate leaders to encourage them to begin negotiations as soon as possible.

Farm groups say they want results.

"While the farm bill is renewed every five years, the work to ensure the farm bill serves farmers and ranchers is ongoing," said Jodie Anderson, executive director of the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association. "South Dakota beef producers rely on the conservation and disaster tools provided in the farm bill."

Watching rural post offices

An issue that is below the radar for many in rural America nonetheless is one that often arises: the possibility of rural post offices closing.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., recently told a presidential task force on postal reorganization that rural areas' needs must be considered as the service is rebuilt. One possibility being discussed is turning the work over to a private business.

"For millions of farmers, senior citizens and small businesses across rural America, there is no substitute for the Postal Service," Heitkamp said. "Privatizing the agency would leave these customers behind, and the administration's recent proposal does not focus on the needs of Americans living in rural areas who depend on the Postal Service as a vital day-to-day lifeline."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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