Congress OKs farm subsidies amid conditions called ‘the worst we've seen'

Congress broke a stalemate and gave final approval Wednesday to a farm bill that will provide subsidies to Minnesota farmers, sending the legislation to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Minnesota’s farming industry lobbied hard for the bill’s passage, and several members of the state’s congressional delegation hailed the vote as a major win. It re-authorizes crop insurance and includes a bigger safety net for small dairy producers.

Final approval came as an increasing number of Minnesota farmers declare bankruptcy amid low crop and milk prices and uncertainty caused by President Trump’s trade war with China.

“During times of financial and emotional stress, farmers and ranchers need the tools provided through the farm bill that will help to weather this storm,” Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said in a statement.

Some dairy farmers will need more relief than the farm bill provides.

Bill Sorg, who runs an operation with 300 cows outside Hastings, said the government may need to take the dramatic step of limiting milk production to increase prices. Sorg said he hasn’t made a profit in three years because of low prices. The problem will get worse if the export market shrinks because of trade disputes, he said.

“For the dairy farmer, I think it’s the worst we’ve seen,” Sorg said in an interview on his farm. “If you go across rural Minnesota, and the towns pretty much show that agriculture isn’t doing well.”

For some farmers, the depressed prices have been too much. The rate of farm bankruptcies in Minnesota and Wisconsin has more than doubled from 2014 to 2018, according to data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve.

In Minnesota alone, there were 20 bankruptcies in the 12-month period that ended in June 2018. That figure is higher than at any period since 2007, the Minneapolis Fed said.

“Current price levels and the trajectory of the current trends suggest that this trend has not yet seen a peak,” wrote Ronald Wirtz, the branch’s regional outreach director said in a report published in November.

The farm bill will provide certainty on crop insurance, Sorg said. He said he got a small payment through the farm bill this summer because of the dairy industry’s losses.

Limiting production would help dairy producers more, but is not a popular solution, he said.

“I would certainly rather be profitable and produce a little less milk than work at a break-even or less and produce more,” he said.

Among the other provisions of the federal farm bill: legalization of industrial hemp production. The bill was stalled until this week as congressional Republicans and Democrats argued over whether to include stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients. In a victory for Democrats, the final bill does not strengthen the requirements.