REDWOOD FALLS, MINN. — Eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives agriculture committee, including five Minnesotans, sat front-and-center Wednesday at the annual southwestern Minnesota farm industry assemblage known as Farmfest.
The politicians heard pleasant pleas from corn-growers and biofuel advocates, but at other times took a grilling. Congress is inching toward its farm bill deadline, but without a piece of legislation in either chamber.
"Can any of you guys cut your wage in half and make it?" asked Ron Behounek, a dairy farmer from Hayfield, Minn., who would like to see the decade-old milk insurance figures updated in the next farm bill. "It's a complete and utter disaster."
But the most pronounced peppering came from hunger advocates, many still stung from the debt ceiling negotiation that saw politicians add work requirements for some food stamp recipients and threaten to cut federal funding for mothers and babies.
Intermixed with the farm creditors, conservationists and a propane salesman, the advocates seeking to keep nutrition spending at the center of farm bill discussions showed up en masse.
"That was ridiculous. We should not be negotiating the debt ceiling on the people who are struggling to put food on the table," said Allison O'Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland. "It should infuriate the entire country."
In Rochester alone, Channel One Regional Food Bank saw 7,000 household visits in both May and June, said Virginia Merritt, executive director of the southeastern Minnesota food bank.
As those who follow the twice-a-decade farm bill know, the legislation suffers from a misnaming. While the omnibus law, last re-upped by Congress in 2018, funds crop insurance and rural broadband programs, 80% of its spending is on food and hunger initiatives. The next bill is expected to top $1 trillion in spending.
"It should be [called] a food bill because that's what it is," said Dan Glessing, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation and a dairy farmer from Renville County.
Back in Washington, D.C., politics loom as a potential challenge to the farm bill. Republicans hold the House, while Democrats lead the Senate and White House — which means bipartisan agreement is necessary to get something passed and signed into law.
Randy Russell, who heads a leading agriculture lobbying firm, called the current climate "a very difficult political environment," and noted the narrow majority the GOP has in the House.
"People are already kind of drawing the lines about nutrition versus farm programs and farm policy, and threading that needle where you can get 218 votes and also hold the bill together on the floor is no small feat," Russell said.
Wednesday's confab at Farmfest was billed as a listening session for the members of Congress, but it was as much a listening session for the farmers attending.
Standing by the barn and leaning on his walking stick, farmer Keith Zoeller from East Chain, Minn., watched from a distance.
"Politics don't..." Zoeller said, shaking his head without finishing his thought. But talk of crop insurance resonated. "You can't farm without crop insurance. We don't use it often. But when we have, it's worked well. You hope you never need it."
Across the barn, Brian Greenslit, a farmer from Renville County, spoke passionately about his frustrations with California agriculture policy, from a ban on internal combustion engines in new cars beginning next decade to a livestock law that will force hog producers selling into the Golden State to allow more space for animals in captivity. Such a move, the industry argues, will increase expenses for hog farmers across the country.
But Greenslit said the farm bill needs the nutrition title, largely to draw the attention of members of Congress from less agrarian regions.
"If you're a U.S. senator from New York City, what reason do you have to vote to pass a farm bill if it didn't have enough money to feed ... a certain percent of his constituents [who] need that [hunger relief funding] to survive on," Greenslit said.
Minnesota's members — including all four Republicans, Reps. Tom Emmer, Pete Stauber, Michelle Fischbach and Brad Finstad, as well as Democrat Rep. Angie Craig — closed the session by reflecting on the hours of testimony.
"I think about the young people in the world right now. Where do you want to raise a family?" asked Emmer, emphasizing rural broadband funding. "I'd rather raise a family in rural Minnesota. I think the values actually make sense."
Afterward, sitting in earshot of the beer tent, Craig said the reauthorization of the farm bill needs to happen by year's end.
"We can't extend this thing for a year," said the third-term Democrat. "That is too much uncertainty for family farmers."
Staff writer Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.