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A conversation about farming

Sun, Aug 13th, 2000
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Monday, August 14, 2000

A farmer friend of mine, who has been milking cows for the past 30 years, was recently lamenting the fact that all of his immediate neighbors no longer milk cows for a living.

The valley used to be full of dairies, he told me. Now theres just a few of us left in the township.

He believes that this trend is not just about the dairy business, with its complex pricing system, but about livestock farming in Fillmore County as a whole.

There are less grasses being grown, he explained. It used to be that you could make money selling hay around here. Not anymore.

Its a fact, there are less dairy farms. According to Fillmore County Extension Educator Jerry Tesmer, there were 286 herds in Fillmore County in 1999 as compared to 431 in 1992. Of the 286 herds, 168 are Grade A herds, where drinkable milk is produced. There are 118 Grade B herds in the county, operated mainly by Amish farmers, where the milk is used for cheese.

Beef cattle are down too, Tesmer said. But not as dramatically as dairy.

My friend thinks that there is a relationship between less livestock farming, and more corn and soybeans replacing grasses. More and more farmers need to work off the farm to make ends meet, he reasons. And raising livestock can be pretty labor intensive. When you work off the farm you dont want to be up calving all night.

He calls these people weekend farmers. He understands their need to simplify farming by minimizing the need to keep costly equipment and by contracting out spraying and sometimes, even, planting and combining. Overall, he reasons, crop farming is an efficient way to farm part-time.

Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Gene Hugoson recognized this group of farmers in a speech he gave at the Rural Summit in Rochester recently.
You need $40,000 income or more to support a family, so youve got to have an operation thats going to generate that kind of revenue or work off the farm, Hugoson said. He went on to say that we need strong rural communities as more and more farmers move to off-farm employment.

According to Hugoson, Minnesota has 80,000 farmers, of which, a quarter are full-time farmers. This statistic holds true for Fillmore County. 1997 data shows 1170 out of 1546 farmers (75%) working off-farm in Fillmore County.

With $1.20 corn, the marketplace is saying were producing too much corn, my farmer friend says, arguing that simple supply and demand should tell us to reduce our production.

But the government steps in and ties loan deficiency payments to a farmers corn and soybean base. This gives all farmers, the weekend farmer especially, an incentive to keep planting corn and soybeans.

Where is the motivation to change practices? my friend asks.

At several flood meetings that I have attended recently, the question has been asked with increasing regularity, Is there a relationship between growing corn and soybeans and erosion and flooding?

There are some that think so. My friend wonders if we shouldnt have an agricultural plan for each county in the nation that ties deficiency payments to conservation practices.

We need a plan that takes into account the geography and topography, and ties farm payments to practices that have a long-term benefit, he said. There should be a common good that is achieved when a farmer receives a payment from the government.

The Freedom to Farm bill will be up for renewal in two years. One of the goals of this legislation has been to reduce the federal governments controls over supply management and take away a farmers dependence on the government safety net for risk management. The federal government paid out over $8.7 billion in farm relief subsidies in 1999.

My friend is unsure about what to do to fix farming. He just knows that things arent right. He knows that the family farm is a term that can mean everything and nothing, depending on whos saying it. He knows that he is a family farmer, as are his neighbors, many of whom make a living in town for the privilege of being able to farm on the weekends.

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