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After tough year, Midwestern farmers prepare for new direction from Washington

Patrick Condon, Star Tribune on

Published in Business News

CANTON, Minn. — Bonnie and Vance Haugen's small dairy farm weathered nearly three decades of relentless market forces, shifting government policies and the unpredictable dictates of nature and biology. But 2020 was the year that almost killed this family operation.

"Prices were crashing," Bonnie Haugen said, recalling the chaos in the U.S. food supply that accompanied the early weeks of last spring's COVID-19 lockdown. "We couldn't sell steers, we couldn't sell bull calves. There was a two- to three-week period where we really didn't know what was going to happen. We didn't think we'd have to go under but it was an option we put on the table."

Things stabilized, but not without federal intervention. The Haugens just filled out last year's taxes: "We got over $56,000 in government payments," said Vance Haugen, whose chest-length gray beard makes him resemble his many Amish neighbors here in Minnesota's southeastern corner.

A new year brings new reasons for optimism for Midwestern agricultural producers, fueled by a booming export market with China and forecasts for a strong 2021 harvest.

At the same time, a new Democratic administration in Washington has farmers wondering what's in store from President Joe Biden. Voters across rural America supported former President Donald Trump in much larger numbers, and the new administration has signaled that the fight against climate change will be a guiding focus of its agriculture policy.

"With Trump, you had an agriculture policy pivoting around the trade disputes with China," said Brad Finstad, who recently wrapped up his appointment as Minnesota director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Trump. "But they put in the programs to soften that blow, the direct payments to farmers. I think the market has corrected a little bit and we're seeing some pretty good prices in the corn and soybean markets."

 

Last week the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to confirm Iowa's Tom Vilsack as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Vilsack held the job for the entirety of the Obama-Biden Administration, and his political and personal ties to Biden go back decades further.

"Whether you like Tom Vilsack or not, you know he has Joe Biden's ear," said Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen, a Democrat appointed by Gov. Tim Walz. As a candidate, Biden released a long, detailed plan to revive rural America that calls for making federal agriculture policy central to the fight against climate change.

"Agriculture writ large is ready for this, much more than before," Vilsack said in an interview last month with Iowa's Storm Lake Times. He talked of creating federal incentives for practices such as organic production, cover cropping and crop rotation intended to increase the amount of carbon stored in soil rather than expelling it into the atmosphere, and for enrolling more farmland in conservation programs.

Those efforts could be bankrolled in large part with money from USDA's Community Credit Corporation (CCC). In the Trump administration, the USDA directed some $46 billion from the CCC to farmers via relief payments tied to both the trade wars and the pandemic.

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