Commentary: Keeping Minnesota agriculture and rural communities strong

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For Minnesota farmers, it's striking how much has changed in the past year. Our country has a new president, a new agriculture secretary, and a new direction on a lot of policies that affect our farmers, ranchers, and rural communities.

But one thing hasn't changed. Agriculture remains critically important to Minnesota's economy and its way of life. With one in five jobs tied to farming, our state's future prosperity depends upon our producers doing what they do best: feeding our nation and the world. When Minnesota farmers succeed, the economic benefits ripple across our state, boosting our rural communities and our large cities alike.

Maintaining a strong farm safety net

We all know that the best farm policy is ensuring farmers get a good price for what they produce. But with farm income dropping 56 percent since 2013, it's important to our nation's food security that we maintain a strong farm safety net. As we begin work on the next Farm Bill, I'm committed to giving farmers the tools they need to thrive in good times and to get through the difficult times when prices are low.

That's why I pushed back hard when President Trump recently proposed more than $230 billion in Farm Bill cuts, including $29 billion in cuts to the crop insurance program, which farmers depend upon when commodity prices are low. In recent meetings with Minnesota farmers and farm leaders, I've heard firsthand how important this program is. One Minnesota farmer told me that the president's crop insurance cuts would "severely cripple the ability of the American farmer to operate their businesses." I've passed his message on to the president, and let him know that we should be investing in the farm safety net, not cutting it.

Because so many farmers are facing financial distress, I've also pressed Senate appropriators to include strong funding for USDA State Mediation Grants. These grants pay to train certified mediators who can help producers to overcome conflicts that may develop with lenders, and to avoid litigation and even bankruptcy.

A strong renewable fuel standard

As a member of the Senate Energy Committee, I've seen how expanding use of renewable energy in Minnesota and across the country creates badly needed jobs, increases demand for farm products, and decreases our reliance on foreign oil. For this reason, I've long pushed for a strong Renewable Fuel Standard, which governs the amount of ethanol and biodiesel blended into the nation's fuel supply.

I was pleased that the administration announced plans to maintain the 15-billion-gallon target for ethanol in 2018, but I was disappointed by the targets for biodiesel and other advanced biofuels, and will push hard to raise them between now and November, when they are finalized.

Rural healthcare is part of broader health debate

As co-chair of the U.S. Senate Rural Health Caucus, I've traveled to rural communities across the state and heard directly from farmers, patients, providers, and community leaders about the impact of recent Republican health proposals. Frankly, many rural Minnesotans are worried about how these proposals could devastate health care delivery and their local economies. And they are particularly fearful of potential cuts to Medicaid, which serves as a vital lifeline to our rural residents, providers, and communities.

I'm going to keep fighting to defeat these misguided — even cruel — proposals and urge my colleagues to work together — in a bipartisan way — to fix the real problems facing our health care system. I'm working to address high costs and lack of competition in the individual market, and to bring down the skyrocketing prices of prescription drugs. These are solutions we can — and should — all get behind.

Opening up new markets for our producers

We need to do everything we can to open up new markets for Minnesota farm products. As someone who has traveled to Cuba, I understand how improved relations with that country can lead to more Minnesota farm exports. That's why I am very concerned about President Trump's retreat from a more open U.S.-Cuba relationship. To expand trade with Cuba, I have cosponsored Sen. Amy Klobuchar's legislation lifting trade restrictions.

But we also need to fight back when unfair foreign trade practices hurt Minnesota producers. That's why I was pleased that U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross responded to my call to take action against Mexico, whose trade practices were unfairly harming Minnesota sugar beet growers. I'll continue to push to make sure Mexico and any other country that tries to flout trade rules are held accountable.

Agriculture is — and always has been — critical to our state's economy and to our way of life. As we begin to debate a new Farm Bill, I'm looking forward to hearing from Minnesotans about how we can make our rural communities even stronger.