Perdue listens to Wisconsin farmers' input on farm bill

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Associate Editor
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is hopeful the latest financial assistance will help those experiencing losses with immediate cash flow needs heading toward the end of the year.

WEST ALLIS - The fear Jennifer and Shane Sauer felt when getting dropped by Grassland Dairy this spring will never go away, but they are hoping a farm bill listening session with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Aug. 3 is the next step in improving things for Wisconsin farmers. 

As part of a five-state RV tour titled the “Back to Our Roots”, Perdue is gathering input on the 2018 Farm Bill and ways to increase rural prosperity.

Perdue kicked off the tour at the Wisconsin State Fair where he participated in opening ceremonies with Gov. Scott Walker and met with a handful of Wisconsin farmers in a farm bill listening session before touring a Hunger Task Force farm. 

Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Research Secretary Ben Brancel (right) welcomes farmers to a farm bill listening session with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue at the Wisconsin State Fair on Aug. 3. Perdue listened to concerns of several Wisconsin farmers after participating in opening ceremonies at the fair as he kicked off his "Back to Our Roots" RV Tour.

“The ‘Back to our Roots’ Farm Bill and rural prosperity RV listening tour will allow us to hear directly from people in agriculture across the country, as well as our consumers – they are the ones on the front lines of American agriculture and they know best what the current issues are,” Perdue said in a statement. “USDA will be intimately involved as Congress deliberates and formulates the 2018 Farm Bill. We are committed to making the resources and the research available so that Congress can make good facts-based, data-driven decisions. It’s important to look at past practices to see what has worked and what has not worked, so that we create a farm bill for the future that will be embraced by American agriculture in 2018.”

Listening session

One of the concerns with the 2018 farm bill for the Sauers is the Dairy Margin Protection Program (MPP).

"We did not enroll in the MPP because we thought it wasn't beneficial to us, so our concern is, can we enroll in that," said Jennifer.

Perdue said congress recognizes that dairy and cotton were two sectors that did not fare well in the 2014 farm bill.

Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Research Secretary Ben Brancel (center) visits with Watertown dairy farmers Jennifer and Shane Sauer after a farm bill listening session with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue at the Wisconsin State Fair on Aug. 3. The listening session was part of Perdue's "Back to Our Roots" RV Tour, which kicked off a the State Fair.

"The Margin Protection Program has not shown to be beneficial from price protection levels that are set currently," Perdue said. "The dairy people gave us some ideas on how to do that."

Perdue said there were some ideas he tested with the farmers at the listening session, to see how they liked them, but he couldn't announce any of that today."

One change to the farm bill Perdue could talk about is possibly separating milk from livestock in its limitation of a $20 million cap "as a possible solution of using milk as a commodity that is insurable from a risk management perspective, rather than limiting it to the livestock cap."

Sauers also asked Perdue if there is a way to do both the MPP and the Livestock Gross Margin (LMG) plan. 

"He's going to go back and work on that," said Jennifer.

Dave Daniels, a Kenosha County dairy farmer, agreed the MPP program needs to be fixed. 

"It just didn't have the right parameters built into it that it needs to make sure farmers use that process and have a safety net for them," said Daniels.

In talking with the farmers, Perdue also acknowledged the importance of trade - balancing trade, having fair trade across the border. 

Both Daniels and the Sauers felt the listening session went well and Perdue listened to them with "open ears."

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue talked with reporters following a farm bill listening session with Wisconsin farmers at the Wisconsin State Fair on Aug. 3. The listening session was part of Perdue's "Back to Our Roots" RV Tour, which kicked off at the Wisconsin State Fair.

As a cash grain farmer, Kevin Malchine, from Racine County, said his main concern with the 2018 farm bill is to keep the crop insurance program. 

"The number one thing with crop farmers is to have that insurance, that risk management program, so when they go to their bankers for financing, they can use that tool," Malchine explained. 

President Trump’s proposed budget includes cuts in crop insurance and other programs for farmers.

Perdue said he recognizes the importance of crop insurance, with some limits.

Malchine said Perdue was very supportive of the farmers at the listening session. 

Perdue's principal for the 2018 farm bill is to have the bill follow the market, not guide the market. 

"We want to be balanced, we want to be a safety net for producers that lets them respond to the market, not them responding to the farm bill," Perdue explained. "I don’t want people farming for the farm bill. I want them farming for the market and letting them have the flexibility to make those decisions that make the most sense for their operations rather than trying to comply with some arcane rules and regulations that we put in the farm bill in order to help their bottom line."

Perdue pointed out that the Department of Agriculture doesn't write the farm bill, "we implement the farm bill."

"But Congress looks to us out on tours like this to bring ideas back, maybe resolutions and solutions to some of the challenges that they're facing," Perdue said. "Everyone acknowledges that the dairy program and the farm bill have not been adequate and you can expect to see changes there."

Hunger Task Force visit

The 2018 farm bill is of particular interest to the Hunger Task Force, which delivers millions of pounds of food to its network of 73 local pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters free of charge. It also provides hundreds of thousands of meals to hungry kids during the summer.

Sherrie Tussler (right), executive director of Hunger Task Force, explains to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue how they pack food boxes for families and seniors, utilizing some of the USDA commodity food.

“I am always concerned when the farm bill comes around because it’s a balancing act, frankly, between the needs of agriculture and federal nutrition programs,” said Sherrie Tussler, the organization's executive director.

A Trump proposal to curtail the nation’s food stamp program, as part of budget cuts, could hurt families struggling to pay for groceries. Last year, more than 44 million people received an average of $125 a month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, totaling about $66.6 billion, according to the Agriculture Department USDA.

“If we don’t see the federal nutrition programs as important, we could be in deep trouble in Milwaukee because we have a high level of poverty,” Tussler said.

Perdue said he supports the programs, but he doesn’t want able-bodied adults without dependents abusing the system.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (left) samples an ear of sweet corn Thursday as he walks with Matt King, farm director for Hunger Task Force, on a tour of the Hunger Task Force Farm in Franklin.

“Just like I am talking about a safety net for farmers, we want a safety net for people who don’t have enough to eat. But we don’t want it to become a lifestyle for people who become dependent on a government program,” Perdue said.

H2A program

When asked by reporters about the H2A guest worker program, Perdue said his department is helping provide congress with ideas that would work for the program. 

Farm labor, trade and regulations are the three concerns that come up over and over again in the farming industry, Perdue pointed out. 

"We know commodity prices are low. We know that farm income is down almost a half from just four years ago and many people are eating into their equity because they want to continue their lifestyle of farming but labor is a huge issue and we have people working on it full time to provide some reasonable solutions, not only for agricultural people, but for the American people," said Perdue. "It's very difficult to find an American worker who wants to milk cows 365 days a year, two times a day. I've done that and I don't want to do it again." 

The guest worker program is important not only to agriculture, but from the perspective of seasonal harvesting and many other sectors.

"We want to make it where the American public can have confidence that we know who these people are, we know where they are, we know when they are here and when they go back home," Perdue said. 

Rick Barrett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, contributed to this story.