MARSHALL - The audience was small, but a meeting to discuss the next Farm Bill did draw both Lyon County residents and visitors from as far away as Renville County to Marshall on Wednesday morning. Staff members working for both U.S. Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Congressman Collin Peterson were in Marshall, gathering public concerns and feedback as the Senate prepares to debate the 2012 bill.
Al Juhnke, an agriculture field representative for Franken's office, started the meeting with an update on the status of this year's bill.
"There's been some starts and stops," Juhnke said.
Typically the challenge of passing new Farm Bill comes after it leaves committee. "The Farm Bill is a very political piece of legislation when it hits the floor of the House or Senate," he said, and it's often a target for amendments.
There will be some additional factors that could affect a new bill this year, Juhnke said.
"It appears the Senate will write the bill first and send it over to the House," instead of the other way around, he said, which is unusual. There are also some new legislators serving on the Agriculture Committee, and this is an election year, so there is additional pressure on lawmakers to get things done.
Juhnke said the Memorial Day and July 4th holidays will likely be key dates for a new bill to move forward. The earlier a bill can be presented this year, the more likely it will be passed before September, when the current Farm Bill is set to expire. If a new bill is not passed, it may be possible to extend the current one, but Juhnke said that option isn't favored by legislators.
Juhnke said some key issues for a new Farm Bill included a shift away from a system of direct payment subsidies to farmers, to one focused more on crop insurance.
"Commodity prices are up, so this might be a good time to make that shift," he said.
Other concerns include conservation and support for renewable energy. Juhnke said Franken supported expanding the infrastructure, like blending pumps, needed to encourage people to use ethanol for fuel.
A small group of people from the region were present at the meeting to give comments and ask questions. Juhnke said attendance at meetings around the state has fluctuated - about 30 people were present for a meeting in Mankato on Tuesday, he said. More outreach meetings are being held across southern Minnesota this week.
Tom Kalahar, a conservationist in Renville County, said he agreed with a shift toward an insurance system for agriculture.
"Direct payments positively, absolutely have to go," he said. Kalahar and other audience members said the rules governing conservation and agriculture need to be fair to both large and small farms, and expressed concerns on the possibility of more marginal farmland being brought into production.
Jim Zenk of Olivia said the country needed to keep some form of farm program. The current agricultural boom, he said, is "Unprecedented in my time. It can't last forever."