A congressional farm bill listening session came to a southern Minnesota farm on Monday, with tractors — painted a familiar shade of green — flanking two congresswomen.
"Has anyone heard of John Deere?" said Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from western Illinois.
The joke landed with her audience of Minnesota farmers. Bustos, the chair of the commodities subcommittee, pointed out that the John Deere combine factory sits in her district. She then turned the microphone on those gathered in a farm shed near Northfield to hear their concerns about the upcoming farm bill negotiations.
"This is designed 100 percent to listen to people," she said.
Members of Congress have been holding these listening sessions in the ramp-up to the once-every-five-years debate on the farm bill — the large, federal spending package financing the federal government's investments in rural development, nutrition and farm subsidies.
"This is the only bill that funds rural America," said Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union.
With a garage door opened to the tall, green corn of the Peterson family, Monday's midsummer gathering marked the committee's first field hearing in the Midwest. The earlier stops have been farther west, such as California and Arizona, where conversations revolved around access to water.
The farm bill touches everything from food policy to broadband, biofuels to school lunches. This often leaves priorities in tension — from reducing the carbon footprint of industrial agriculture to providing milk for hungry children.
On Monday, many farmers rose to defend crop insurance provisions as drafted in the 2018 farm bill. Others spoke on the need to bring new, younger farmers into an industry where the average practitioner is nearly 60. A few attendees spoke on the surge in need at local food shelves.
Dan Glessing, president of Minnesota Farm Bureau, reaffirmed calls to keep separate climate provisions and eligibility for crop insurance.
"We are trying to experiment with new programs on these lands, and what works down here might not work for me," said Glessing, who owns a dairy farm near Waverly.
Other stakeholders — including a number of farmers with ties to regenerative agriculture — spoke favorably of boosting climate resiliency through the various title investments.
Dave Legvold, who farms near the Cannon River, noted that Minnesota once was a leader in devoting acres to U.S. Department of Agriculture programs for sustainable farming, but has seen considerable decrease across the state in recent years.
"Minnesota has a lot of work to do," said Legvold, who handed an aerial photograph to the congresswomen denoting a "big, brown spot" of uncovered, tilled ground in the state.
After the hearing, Rep. Angie Craig, a Minnesota Democrat whose district spans soybean fields in the southeastern part of the state to Twin Cities' suburbs, talked about her grandfather in Arkansas losing his farm during the crisis of the 1980s.
"Family farms like this one are what truly make America exceptional," Craig said.
Bustos said such local hearings help develop the sprawling legislation and account for varied agricultural interests across the country.
"I don't even know what this is — Kernza?" said Bustos, noting the perennial wheat — invoked by a speaker on Monday — that is gaining in popularity for potential environmental benefits. "But you need to listen to all these regional differences."