Producers utilized a listening session featuring two of the most influential men in ag policy to express their displeasure with the state of affairs for rural America, putting them in a mode that varied between explanatory and defensive. 

House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson, D-Minn., hosted a listening session at Farmfest — a farm show near Morgan, Minn. — with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and members of the Congress to hear about ongoing challenges in farm country. One of the speakers, Minnesota Corn Growers Association President Brian Thalmann, chided the administration for its assessment of the state of affairs in farm country, saying producers are not quite "starting to do great again."

“We’re not starting to do great again. Things are going downhill very quickly,” Thalmann said.

He said he hopes once trade deals do get completed that his children will still be able to be involved in agriculture, but reiterated to the group that times were tough.

Thalmann's concerns were echoed by American Soybean Association member Joel Schreurs, of Tyler, Minn., who noted his worries about export markets if trade tensions between China continue. “We’ve worked a long time to develop these markets. It’s just not going to come back in a day or two,” Schreurs said.

Perdue called the grain markets “fungible” and respectfully disagreed with Schruers about Chinese markets not coming back.

“China is going to buy where they see the best value, when we get the trade resolution done. We’re working on markets in India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia to develop other markets,” Perdue remarked.

He also added that American farmers have become too dependent on one customer for soybeans.

Perdue again stressed he was confident the U.S. would gain the Chinese market back but pointed out it had to be a “fair, reciprocal, and free trade market environment” not allowing China to cheat ever since they joined the World Trade Organization.

Hundreds of farmers and show attendees made their way into a steel building at the center of the show grounds where speakers shared concerns on trade, the accuracy of USDA reports, dairy, and other issues.

Many speakers stressed the importance of trade to the state's ag industry, including Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap. In comments to the panel, Paap urged the members of Congress in attendance to work with their colleagues and the Administration on passing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and other trade deals.

Minnesota Farmers Union President Gary Wertish, said he agrees with President Donald Trump on reexamining all trade deals, but does not agree with his “go-at-it-alone” approach.

“China’s recent announcement the last couple of days (about) not buying any agricultural goods from the U.S., this is causing long-term devastating damage to not only farmers but rural communities,” Wertish said.

He added farmers appreciate the Market Facilitation Program payments, but he worries MFP will also cause long-term political damage by affecting future farm bills and funding.

Dairy producers thanked Perdue and Peterson for improving the Dairy Margin Coverage Program in the 2018 Farm Bill but had concerns. Peterson, however, had a few concerns of his own with producers.

“We only have 61% of dairy farmers in Minnesota signed up,” Peterson said. “For the life of me, I can’t understand why it’s not 100%.” Peterson called the program a “no brainer” and was also surprised producers did not take the five-year option.

“We have now a guarantee of gross income for people who have 220 cows or less," he added. "If you are in dairying, and not in this program, don’t come and talk to me.”

A dairy producer in attendance, Tiffany Knopp, said she was aware of a number of dairy farms that had gone out of businesses, which she said explained concerns about signing up for the program. 

“Why (producers) haven’t signed up for the five-year deal is because a lot of dairy farmers don’t know if they are going to be in business for five years,” she said. 

An exchange between Perdue and another farmer also led to an attempt at humor that drew mixed reviews. 

The producer, Mike Peterson of Northfield, Minn., drew cheers from the crowd after expressing his frustration with USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service reports, specifically referring to the June Acreage report.

“I feel that one probably should have been tabled until after July 15, when we write down the actual fundamentals and data ... then you guys could compile it for the August 12th report,” Mike Peterson said. He called the report "speculative" and said it took away from a market rally producers needed.

Perdue disagreed with calling the reports “speculative” and defended USDA. He said the reports are done consistently and set far in advance. “These guys are professional (and) there’s no cynicism at all,” Perdue said of NASS officials who compile the data. 

Mike Peterson expressed frustration that data takes several weeks to calculate and release after producers are initially surveyed, joking that "the show American Idol can tabulate how many votes in the course of an episode?" Perdue responded in kind with a joke that elicited both laughter and boos from the crowd. 

"I had a farmer tell me this in Pennsylvania," Perdue said. "He said 'What do you call two farmers in a basement?' I said 'I don't know, what do you call them?' He said 'A whine cellar.'"

The group also heard concerns about small refinery waivers for oil refiners, a workforce shortage at Farm Service Agency offices and categorical eligibility in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.

Other members of Congress who attend the listening session included (listed alphabetically): Reps. Angie Craig, D-Minn.; Jim Hagedorn, R-Minn.; Dean Phillips, D-Minn.; Pete Stauber, R-Minn.; and Ted Yoho, R-Fla.

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