Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Franken outlines his farm bill priorities

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 04/11/2013 9:12 AM

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MANKATO, Minn. — The sequester is hurting people who may not have much power, Sen. Al Franken said last week following a farm bill hearing in Mankato.

Franken, D-Minn., heard comments on a variety of farm bill programs during his meeting at the Minnesota Soybean office on March 28.

In a media availability after the hearing, Franken talked about the impact the sequester is having on Head Start. The sequester, agreed to as part of a budget deal in 2011, mandates cuts of 3 percent to 5 percent for the fiscal year. Some agencies didn't plan ahead, so their cuts are double that for the fiscal year.

Head Start has fewer slots because of the sequester, Franken said.

"It makes a difference," he said.

Why? Because Head Start has been shown to have a $7 to $16 return on investment, he said. Head Start participants have higher graduation rates, lower teen pregnancy rates and lower prison incarceration rates then their at-risk peers.

Maybe it's a good place to put money, he said.

Yet "people aren't noticing it unless you're the parent whose kid doesn't get a slot," Franken said.

A Blue Earth County commissioner commented on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which has also seen reduced funding.

Franken said SNAP recipients are poorer now than years ago. A large number of them work. Some are older and others are disabled. The need for SNAP continues to increase with increasing income disparity. The cheapest food is the least nutritious food, he said.

Nutrition funding is included in the farm bill, making up 80 percent of the bill's spending.

The other 20 percent was also represented at the hearing. Agricultural groups in attendance included AMPI, AgStar, Land Stewardship Project, Minnesota Corn, Minnesota Farmers Union, Minnesota Milk Producers, Minnesota Soybean, Minnesota Pork and National Farmers Organization.

Tom Kalahar, with the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District, suggested the next farm bill include a safety net for the environment through cross compliance with crop insurance.

Franken said he supported that amendment in the bill that passed the Senate. The House failed to act on a farm bill last session, so it died and will need to be rewritten.

Crop insurance is only a safety net for planted acres, Franken said, and it encouraged more planting.

He said he'll continue to fight for conservation and habitat. He brought up the gun rights issue, saying that hunting will be impacted more by a lack of habitat than any kind of gun legislation that Congress passes.

A corn grower said it would be difficult to tie conservation compliance with crop insurance and there was also discussion regarding a cap on crop insurance subsidies.

Kalahar asked Franken to treat the agriculture industry fairly. The programs now tend to benefit established farmers. The best way to get young people on the farm is through livestock production. Pastures havw been plowed for corn, soybean and sugar beet production.

If all agriculture isn't treated fairly, the exodus from rural areas will continue, he said.

Franken said it's important to preserve the quality of life in rural Minnesota. That's why he's a supporter of rural broadband.

A pork producer started his comment by saying Franken was ignorant about Minnesota agriculture.

Franken stopped him, saying, "I care a lot about Minnesota agriculture and I've made it my business to learn as much as I can about it," he said.

The producer asked Franken to identify his goals and priorities for the farm bill.

Franken said he wants a secure national food supply, with leftover for export, a safety net to protect farmers who sow a crop and are largely dependent on Mother Nature to see what they'll harvest. He also wants to have young, beginning farmers, and access to fresh fruits and vegetables for children.

Steve Hoffman, a dairy farmer from New Ulm who serves on the AMPI board, spoke in favor of the Dairy Security Act and in opposition to the Goodlatte-Scott amendment.

The amendment, proposed by Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and David Scott, R-Ga., eliminated the growth management portion of the dairy title.

The farm bill extension expires in September. Franken is optimistic a new five-year farm bill in place by then.

He's also optimistic that immigration reform will pass and that the provisions related to agricultural labor will be included.