Area farmers had a chance to quiz local leaders about tariffs, health care and other topical issues deeply affecting them at Wednesday’s annual Rice County Farmers Union Convention.

Among the leaders who made it to Keepsake Cidery in Bridgewater Township were Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, and Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Thom Peterson. After hearing from leaders, the Farmers Union conducted its formal business, re-electing Steven Read as RCFU President and selecting a vice president and four delegates to the State Farmers Union convention.

Read was excited to see a strong turnout for the Rice County chapter meeting. He said that in recent years, the local chapter has grown. In order to attract more members, the Farmers Union approved a motion to make memberships for new farmers under 25 free.

Peterson is a familiar face within Farmers Union, having served as Director of Government Relations for the organization from 2002 until he accepted the job as commissioner earlier this year. Peterson praised the vibrancy of the Rice County chapter, is a strikingly unusual example of a microcosm of Minnesota farming.

“I always say that (Rice County) is one of the most unique counties in Farmers Union,” Peterson said. “We have just about every kind of farming here.”

Farmers pressed their legislators to support small and local farms over the interests of big agricultural companies. Lippert, who was the last of the legislators to speak, made sure to highlight the issue in his remarks.

“Local economies are stronger when there are more farmers,” Lippert said. “I grew up in a town of 700 people, I’ve been a pastor for more than 15 years in small communities. Those of us who know rural communities and rural areas know this is true.”

Read said that increased interest in buying local, environmentally sustainable products has led to an increase in small, family-owned farms throughout the region. That’s reverses a trend of years of growth for large corporate-owned farms that had been launched by the farm crisis of the 1980s.

After years of growing just one or two crops in the name of efficiency, many area farms are now turning towards crop diversification along with agritourism. Having a greater diversity of revenue sources can also help farmers insulate themselves from both environmental challenges and market uncertainties.

The last few years have also proven a difficult time for many farmers, with inconsistent weather and thorny political issues dragging down profitability. Read said that with so much uncertainty, the Farmers Union plays a critically important role in making sure that the voices of small farmers are heard.

“It’s more important than ever to have organizations like Farmers Union,” Read said.

For many area farmers, this year’s growing season has again been difficult, with a late planting combined with a growing season that has been cooler and wetter than average. In addition to the less than ideal weather, farmers have had to cope with low commodity prices, with the market acting in expectation of a large harvest that analysts believe is likely not to come.

Four big issues

The farmers repeatedly cited four major political issues as having a deep impact on their business — trade, immigration, environment and health care. They urged their representatives to support freer and more predictable markets, immigration programs to address the labor shortage, environmental sustainability and affordable, quality health care.

Farmers have struggled to find new trading partners after the Chinese officially pulled out of the U.S. agricultural market in August. The move was particularly difficult for area soybean farmers, given that China is the world’s largest consumer of soybeans and previously accounted for roughly 60% of soy exports.

The loss of soy exports is yet another example of farmers suffering at the front line of the trade war with China. An analysis from Colorado-based Ag lender CoBank that analyzed the effects of 11 tariffs on U.S. producers found that in 9 of those cases, the producers bore the brunt of the blow.

Many farmers say they’re also struggling with a significant labor shortage. A 2014 analysis from independent think tank New American Century estimated that farmers would have been able to net $3.1 billion in additional sales of fresh produce with additional workers.

While guest worker programs have expanded in recent years, they’re still inadequate to meet U.S. agriculture’s needs, leaving many farms to rely heavily on undocumented labor. A 2014 analysis from the Farm Bureau estimated that at least 50-70% of farm workers are undocumented.

Unless legal immigration programs are significantly expanded, the Trump Administration’s proposed mass deportations of undocumented immigrants could devastate farmers. The Farm Bureau found that if agriculture were to lose access to all undocumented workers, agricultural output would drop by up to $60 billion and food prices would rise by 5-6%.

Area farmers say they’re deeply concerned about climate change and environmental issues. Inconsistent weather and severe farms have hurt agricultural output over the last few years and with climate change, the trend is likely to intensify.

Finally, the high cost of health care remains a struggle for farmers. Minnesota Farmers Union Government Relations Director Stu Lourey said that health care affordability is the top issue he hears about when he travels the state.

Farming traditionally ranks among the most dangerous occupations in the United States. With the average age of farmers at 57.5 according to the USDA, health insurance costs are often high and injuries and illnesses can have a devastating impact on farmers.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew.

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