My background is in national security. I worked at the White House, the State Department, and the staff of the United States Senate, with Republicans and Democrats, to get things done for the American people. There is no better example of a national security issue than agriculture.
After listening to folks from Winona to Rock County in the new First District, I'm convinced we need to take a new look at the issue of federal agricultural policy, and to develop a new vision for the future of agricuture in Minnesota and America.
We have seen how business as usual in the area of national security did not adequately prepare our country to defend against the September 11th attacks. Similarly, business as usual in the area of agriculture policy will not help us protect family farms in Minnesota.
Because of this, I am proposing the creation of a new Commission on Agriculture Reform. This commission would include Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, farmers, ranchers, processors, environmentalists, and agribusiness. The commission would be charged with examining the situation we find ourselves in today; defining our future challenges; and recommending solutions to the President and the Congress.
My objective, here, is not to create a new bureaucracy. My objective is to put together a bipartisan commission that will help us construct good farm/agriculture policy that will achieve broad support in the Administration and the Congress, and will protect family farms and rural communities.
The New Farm Bill: Opportunities and Challenges
Congress passed and President Bush signed a new Farm Bill covering the next six years, substantially revising the 1996 "Freedom to Farm" legislation. The Bill substantially increases federal agricultural subsidies (by one estimate, by $73.5 billion over the next ten years). Approximately 50 percent of these benefits go to less than 10 percent of the nation's farms. This year's farm bill (just a few of the highlights):
Minnesota ranks third in terms of total subsidies - and will receive approximately $1.1 billion this year. Without payments, the average Minnesota farmer would have a net loss of approximately $5,099. The average southwestern Minnesota producer received $38,926 in payments, the average southcentral Minnesota producer received $36,734 in payments, and the average southeast Minnesota producer received $35,320 in payments.
There are a number of positive provisions in this year's Farm Bill. First, it provides a greater degree of predictability in terms of payments, establishes a new dairy program that includes Minnesota dairy farmers and increases funding for conservation programs.
That said, I think the bill would have been stronger if it contained provisions that were in the Senate bill - for example, stricter limits on the maximum allowed payment to any individual. Moreover, I'm concerned that the bill does not go as far as it should to promote real reform in Federal Agriculture programs. Such reform is necessary to protect family farms, adapt to the challenges of a new century, and maintain political support for these programs.
Strategies to Strengthen Rural Communities in Minnesota
Our rural communities remain the heart and soul of our state, and our country. Farming is not just a business, it is the fundamental American way of life.
First, I will work to restore and strengthen our economy across the board. A strong economy begins with sound fiscal policy. Our economy was put at risk last year with reckless budget and tax policies that have returned us to deficit spending, supported by the current Representative from the First District.
Second, we need to seriously look at reform of federal agricultural programs to return fairness and economic stability to farms and rural communities. This nation cannot sustain a system that gives a disproportionate share of farm subsidies to the wealthiest farmers and shortchanges those farmers in greatest need.
Third, Congress must ensure that the transportation and information arteries to our rural communities are strong, and must allocate necessary resources to upgrade roads and bridges that carry our agricultural products to market, as well as our airports, sewers, water and waste systems.
Fourth, the centers of education in our rural communities must also remain strong, so that our children can receive a quality education second to none from kindergarten through college.
Finally, rural jobs are the essential prerequisite for maintaining our rural communities. This requires a vibrant agricultural economy that provides the necessary support for farm families. It also requires new incentives for business and investment in rural communities.
Revisions Needed in Current U.S. Farm Policy
I will highlight the following four areas for reform.
First, the distribution of farm subsidies. Can we continue to support a system of federal subsidies where over half the benefits go to less than 10 percent of eligible farmers?
Second, a related issue, that of payment limitations. We must examine whether we should place strict individual limits on the size of federal subsidies, and if so, at what level?
Third, concentration in the agriculture industry. This is also an issue of anti-trust policy. Do we simply throw up our hands and permit unlimited concentration, or try to take steps - such as a ban on packer ownership - that would attempt to help small, independent producers receive a fair price for their products.
Fourth, the issue of genetically modified crops, for both food and feed. GMO crops have increased their presence dramatically in fields in the past 5 years, but the marketability of these crops is shaky. Last year, one division of an agribusiness sold GMO seed to farmers while another division of that same company refused to buy those same crops. The Starlink controversy highlighted another pitfall in how these crops are grown and processed. Another problem is the impact of cross-pollenation of GMO crops with non-GMO crops, which can adversely affect organic producers or non-GMO producers raising crops for a baby food manufacturer. In order to avoid unintended and potentially severe consequences, urgent careful examination of these crops is needed, from the perspective of safety, health, environmental impact and economic impact.
Homeland Security Issues that Affect Agriculture and Rural Communities
The issue of homeland security affects all of us. We need to remember that the next terrorist attack could happen anywhere. It could happen in Rochester, at the Mayo Clinic; it could happen in Red Wing, at Prairie Island; or it could happen in Minneapolis, at the Metrodome or the Mall of America. That's why we need to focus on training the "first responders," like police and fire departments, and strengthening our public health system, so we can guard against a chemical or biological weapons attack.
Even attacks that happen far away - like the September 11th attacks in New York and Washington - affect us here in Minnesota. For example, we have now spent billions of dollars responding to the events of September 11th - that is money that is not available for other federal programs. Need to pay close attention as to how that money gets spent.
We all have a stake in insuring that our government's efforts to strengthen homeland security do not affect our civil liberties and the rights guaranteed to all Americans through our Bill of Rights and our Constitution.
Federal Assistance for Rural School Districts in Minnesota
The single most obvious and important step that the Federal government can take is to provide its promised share of funding for special education. School districts across Minnesota are having to dip into their general revenue accounts to cover special education costs - in effect, to make up the difference between what the federal government has promised, and what the federal government has delivered. This is a huge, un-funded mandate that affects every school district in rural Minnesota. And it is pitting our special education families against other families.
I will make full funding of special education a first priority. I will also guard against any further, un-funded mandates from the federal government, including those related to student testing.
Use of Biotechnology in Agriculture Production
In July, the Administration published in the Federal Register a set of proposed new rules that call for a preliminary safety assessment by the FDA or EPA of gene-altered crops. This safety assessment would not be mandatory. The proposed new rules were developed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; they will now undergo a period of public comment, and would take months to become effective.
This preliminary safety assessment by the FDA or EPA of new gene-altered crops is a step in the right direction, but I think the Administration should go further.
First, there should be a moratorium on new field trials of genetically altered crops until new regulations are in place. That would seem the prudent thing to do, in the wake of the StarLink corn problems. Second, such safety reviews should be made mandatory, not optional or voluntary. Third, there should be mandatory labeling of genetically altered crops. Finally, we need to find a way where we can protect organic and sustainable farms from "pollen drift" from genetically altered crops.
Environmental Regulations for Production Agriculture
We have a plethora of regulations relating to water and air quality, feedlots, solid and hazardous wastes, etc. At least some of the growth in regulations can be traced to the increasing size and concentration of the Agriculture industry. We need to look hard at this connection and this should be a subject of review by the Commission on Agriculture Reform.
We also need to look hard at supporting new technologies that can help us effectively address the conflicts between production agriculture and the environment. For example, I spent time last week with a new, startup firm that is working on a pilot plant that would process solid animal waste into high-grade oil. Those kinds of solutions might reduce regulations, improve our environment, and help address our need for new energy sources.
Mergers and Concentration in the Agriculture Industry
We continue to see mergers and concentration in the Ag Industry - just like in many other sectors of our economy, such as Energy, Defense, Telecommunications, and Media. I am concerned at the anti-trust implications of this development, and the possible adverse impacts on family farms in Minnesota. This is one of the key issues that we need to shine a light on from a number of different angles - and I would expect it to be a primary focus of the Commission on Agriculture Reform.
The issue of economic concentration and agribusiness mergers also goes to the issue of our global competitiveness, trade, and our nation's security. Simply put, are we better off to turn agricultural production over completely to a few large corporate players, or are we better off supporting small and medium size family farms to provide food security for our country? Under the current Administration, the balance seems to be tipping dramatically in the direction of large, corporate agribusiness. I am very concerned over the short- and long-term implications of this on rural life in Minnesota and America, as well as on our economy as a whole.
The approach I would take to representing southern Minnesota is to work hard - with Democrats, Independents, and Republicans - to try and hammer out consensus on tough issues. There is no more important issue than Agriculture in this new First District. And I think we do need a "New Look" at Federal Agricultural Policy. That's why I am proposing a Commission on Agricultural Reform.
We need to bring folks together to see if we can't come to an agreement: an agreement on where we are today, the challenges of the future, and recommendations on how to protect family farms and move forward in this new Century. As we move forward, I will work hard, with you, to represent your views and your best interests in Congress.
I appreciate the time that you have given me to read this, and I look forward to discussing this issue throughout the course of my campaign.
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