In the Spotlight

News & Features
Secretary of Agriculture Visits Region,
Offers Help
By Hope Deutscher
June 9, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Part of an MPR Mainstreet Radio project on farming issues.
The June 8 - 10, 1998 series includes:
1. What's Driving U.S. Farm Policies?
2. "Freedom to Farm" Legislation Leading to Changes in Farming Practice
3. Regional Farmers Join Global Economy
4. Secretary of Agriculture Visits Region, Offers Help
5. The Economics of Organic Farming

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman visited Minnesota and North Dakota June 8, offering emotional support and announcing changes to farm programs in hopes of helping struggling Upper Midwestern farmers. Glickman visited individual farms, and then spoke to 2,000 farmers at a forum.

AS ABOUT A DOZEN REPORTERS AND CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATES tagged along, East Grand Forks farmer John Driscoll told Secretary Glickman farmers are suffering. There have been years of bad weather, low prices, and a succession of blighted crops.

He showed Glickman this year's wheat, healthy so far, but Driscoll says weather and disease could still destroy his field.

Driscoll: You know it's just a little early for the scab.
Glickman: Well, if you were to get scab, when would it come?
Driscoll: We get real humid weather about the time it's flowering, and it's about three weeks away from flowering right now - and the scab moves around in the atmosphere in the air and it will just take over this field.

Glickman used his trip to announce the U.S. Department of Agriculture is putting an extra $200,000 into scab research this year. And he'll ask Congress to increase scab research funding next year, to almost $2 million.

Economists say since 1993, scab has caused more than $2.5 million in damages to North Dakota alone.

Last year scab spoiled much of Driscoll's crop, and the one-third that was left was poor quality. Driscoll says, worse yet, the federal crop insurance he purchased didn't cover his losses.

Driscoll: Our guarantees from the losses in the past have driven our yields down so low we didn't trigger any funds from our federal crop because our yields are so low anyhow - it just didn't affect it.

Driscoll's problems were echoed throughout the day by other farmers who are in similar circumstances. Farm disaster aid ended in 1994, and crop insurance was expanded. But crop insurance is based on previous crops. Farmers who have had several years of crop failure get little help from the program.

Several hundred farmers gathered at forums in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks June 8, sharing their fears, frustrations, and solutions with the U.S. agriculture secretary.

Glickman says his department will begin addressing the farmers' concerns immediately.

Glickman: This week we'll go back and again we'll examine and re-examine the administrative actions on crop insurance and other program issues. The message of this meeting needs to go directly to the President as well, and I will take it to him.

Next year, Glickman says the Agriculture Department will start a pilot project to provide insurance for alternative crops such as mustard and cramby, an oil seed.

And Glickman says he will work on increasing wheat prices, currently around $3 a bushel.

But that news comes too late for some, as more than 2,500 North Dakota farmers have quit in the past two years. And farm economists estimate another 1,800 will quit if low grain yield and prices continue.

A week ago, Sharon and Curt Thureen auctioned off their farm. Sharon warns her neighbors and Glickman it's not easy to get out of farming. She says capital gains taxes are draining everything away.

Thureen: We're 50 years old and we're in such debt for the rest of our lives and all our equity out of this 111-year farm, three generations is gone. You guys got to figure it out because there are going to be a lot of us quitting. You've got to help us get out.

Glickman encouraged farmers to continue working, while he tried to incorporate long-term solutions.

Glickman: And there are no magic answers to the problems. I wish there were. Believe you me, I would love to snap my fingers and triple the price of wheat overnight. But I think we can do some things administratively as well as legislatively to help producers cope during these very, very difficult times.

Glickman also restated his desire to change the 1996 Farm Act, the so-called"Freedom to Farm" which released farmers from government production quotas, but also removed federal price supports. While the act is working well in most parts of the country, the combination of blight and low wheat prices has hit Upper Midwestern farmers hard. Glickman agrees with farmers, it could be considered the "Freedom to Failure Act" for some farmers. However, Glickman says supporters for such change have little support in Washington.

Hundreds of acres of farmland in North Dakota are flooded. Glickman says ranchers suffering losses because of flooded pasture land will receive some of the $12 million left over in the livestock disaster reserve fund.

And Glickman says he's increasing the export credit guarantees to Turkey by $100 million, making it easier for Turkey to buy American wheat and hopefully bumping up the price of grain.