Representatives from the office of Senator Tina Smith (Minn., DFL) visited Tim Velde’s farm outside of Granite Falls on Thursday, April 19 to discuss the Senate Farm Bill currently being drafted in Washington, D.C. Outreach Director for Senator Smith, Paula Sunde, and Field Representative Carson Ouellette were present to answer questions and record audience responses.

Although Sen. Smith was not able to attend the event, she stressed the importance of nutrition, energy, and conservation in a short video presentation at the start of the program. She also lauded the Farm Bill, citing its “powerful role in promoting rural economic development.”

Crop insurance was one aspect of the Farm Bill that aroused a great deal of interest from the 20 or so local residents in attendance. According to one attendee from the Land Stewardship Project, the federal government should use crop insurance to encourage greater crop diversification, which he said also provides soil conservation benefits.

Another issue raised during the two hour meeting was agricultural exports. Several speakers stressed the importance of seeking additional export markets other than China, which currently consumes a disproportionate share of American crop exports. Participants also demanded more funding for export programs run through the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

Conservation was a major source of discussion, and elicited divergent opinions from the local farmers in attendance. One group acknowledged the success of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a federally organized program that rewards farmers who take acres of land out of production for the purposes of land conservation), but questioned why high financial rewards were being given to high quality land.

CRP was originally designed to protect eroded or damaged land to conserve it for use by future generations of farmers, but has come under fire because of the way it withdraws productive acreages. One solution floated during the meeting was lowering the subsidies for good quality land and using CRP to instead concentrate on erosion-prone land.

A concern that came up repeatedly during the meeting was encouraging greater engagement between farmers and local officials. Many complained that organizations like the Soil and Water Conservation Districts were too limited to “pushing paper” and needed to be out more in the field speaking directly with those employed in agriculture.

Another major component of the Farm Bill is funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (more commonly known as SNAP). The House version of the Bill calls for deep cuts to SNAP and other food subsidies for low income households. Those attending the meeting at the Velde farm defended the program, calling it a major buttress for midwest farmers. As one man explained during the discussion, “we might worry about people getting a ‘free lunch,’ but at least it’s a ‘free lunch’ that was produced here in rural America.”

Other topics also were brought up during the meeting. Staff from Senator Smith assured participants that Smith was firmly behind federal funding for connecting rural residents with high speed broadband internet, calling it a major obstacle to greater economic development in certain regions. Other infrastructure issues were also mentioned, in particular the need to upgrade portions of rural sewer systems to prevent nitrates from leaking into the water supply.

Several participants urged Sen. Smith to address the cutting out of chocolate milk from school lunch menus, citing the damage it has done to the dairy industry. Others asked her to protect rural electric and telephone subsidies which were rumored to be on the chopping block. There were also several comments about promoting “credible research” as a key component of improving agricultural production.

At the end of the meeting, Sunde told the audience that their recommendations and opinions would be conveyed to Senator Smith. She said that there were still no guarantees that the Senate would get around to passing a bill this year, though she did hint at a possible extension for the negotiating period.