STODDARD — Average consumers of farm products don’t understand the implications if the Farm Bill fails family enterprises, or the potential trade war over U.S. tariffs torpedoes exports of agricultural commodities, organic dairy farmer Tim Servais says.
“This trade thing is huge,” Servais said during an interview in the farm’s large pole barn as hundreds of mostly Holstein cows munched their lunch. “They may think eating an extra pound of cheese helps,” but that is nothing compared with the losses that would follow if the United States loses its export markets in Canada and Mexico.
“I don’t think people realize how that trickles out to other jobs, such as equipment,” as well as groceries and other products, he said, as the sounds of two manure hauling trucks outside gave credence to the need for specialized equipment.
Servais’ comments came after U.S. Rep. Ron Kind unveiled his priority report for the Farm Bill that Congress is are working on. The needs of family farmers are his top priority, the La Crosse Democrat said.
“As a lifelong Wisconsinite, I know that one of the most important bills for growing our local economy and supporting small and family farms is the Farm Bill,” Kind said. “I also know the crisis that our farmers are facing every day. Farms are closing, families are out of work, and people feel betrayed.”
The Farm Bill must reform commodities subsidies and protect funding for conservation practices to avoid “putting the squeeze on our family farms,” Kind said.
Kind’s 20-page priorities booklet, available on the congressman’s website, highlights a variety of needs, especially crop insurance reforms to halt windfalls to billionaires, private equity investors and large corporate farms at the expense of family farms.
Kind said taxpayers would be shocked to see how many subsidy checks are headed to billionaires in the concrete mazes of New York City, Chicago and other large cities instead of farmers who till the fields, milk the cows and tend cattle and pigs.
Kind cited his pattern of pushing back in a quest to get payment caps to funnel subsidies from the billionaires to family farmers. Although crop insurance is a good risk management tool, the present $8 billion program is inefficient and inequitable, Kind’s booklet says.
In 2011, the wealthiest 20 percent of crop insurance policyholders received 73 percent of all government-funded premium subsidies, according to the booklet.
Kind also underscored the need to build on the previous Farm Bill’s assistance for beginning farmers, especially with the average age of farmers hovering near 60.
“We must guarantee viable options and show the next generation the path to success,” Kind said, adding that it is essential to provide farmers with affordable health care, especially “with the inherent dangers of their jobs.”
Echoing that sentiment was Tim Servais, who runs the farm his retired dad, Jim, who was standing nearby, bought in the 1970s.
“This is a very scary time to be in agriculture,” Tim said, adding that the future of farming could be uncertain for his children. “You can only squeeze a penny so far, but getting to know when to squeeze it without making a mistake is hard.”
Time was, simple hard work defined farming, Tim said, but now, there are so many business considerations that it takes an extra level of expertise.
For example, cooperatives such as Organic Valley in La Farge, of which he is a member, may want to expand export markets, but uncertainty hamstrings planning, he said.
Kind, co-chair of the House Organic Caucus, said the fact that his 3rd Congressional District is home to Organic Valley — one of the largest such co-ops in the world — is incentive to “make sure any trade agreements with Mexico and Canada have a safe landing zone” for not only traditional farmers but also the organic industry.
Kind is one of only three Democrats who offered amendments to the Farm Bill, all of which were blocked by the Committee on Rules or failed on the House floor. Those amendments included demands for more transparency in the crop insurance program, protection for the Conservation Stewardship Program and refusing to send U.S. taxpayer money to Brazilian cotton farmers.
The Farm Bill failed in a House vote May 17, and another vote is expected by June 22.
Turning his attention to international matters, Kind expressed concern about retaliatory measures Canada, Mexico and European Union countries are threatening in reaction to tariffs President Donald Trump has announced on those countries’ imports.
“I’m very worried about the fast jump to tariffs,” Kind said, adding that it is especially frustrating that Trump cited national security as the reason for the tariffs, when they target the United States’ closest and most peaceful allies.
Asked how Trump’s calling Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a liar and withdrawing from the G-7 Summit communique — two hours after calling the U.S. relationship with G-7 members a firm 10 — affects U.S. credibility, Kind said, “I don’t think it’s helpful to make enemies of our friends.”
Kind also expressed concern about Trump’s readiness to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un because North Koreans “are very good at the game of appearing interested” but reversing themselves later.
“We hope and pray for good negotiations,” Kind said.
If Trump and Kim reach an accord, it must be perfectly clear to include North Korea’s surrendering its nuclear warhead capabilities, with verifiable inspections and hard dates.
Kind cited as his main concern that Trump might weaken economic sanctions against North Korea, making it nearly impossible to reinstate such limits.
“The next 24 hours will tell,” he said.