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Making farm and trade policies work for Minnesota

When I came to the Senate in January, I fought for and won a seat on the Agriculture Committee because I know how important agriculture is to creating and supporting Minnesota jobs and our state's economy.

I also know that Minnesota producers have been struggling for several years with a steep drop in commodity prices that has hurt their bottom lines and had a ripple effect on the well-being of businesses and communities across our state.

Americans also are learning what our farmers have long known: trade is important to our nation's prosperity. Unfortunately, for farmers in Minnesota and across the country the current trade wars are only adding to their economic uncertainty by costing them access to important markets, further weakening crop prices, and eroding farm income.

Many have told me that they're nervous that the tariffs the U.S. is imposing on long-time trading partners - combined with our country's withdrawal from negotiations on future trade agreements - may be doing permanent damage to some of our most important trade relationships. As one worried Minnesota farm leader told Congress recently, "Once you lose a market, it is really tough to get it back."

Giving farmers the tools to succeed

I know that the best farm policy is one that ensures Minnesota producers get a good price for their farm products. But years of low prices, worsened by recent trade uncertainties, have made it important for the 2018 Farm Bill to give producers the certainty they need. In short, we have to get the five-year Farm Bill over the finish line and signed into law.

I was very pleased that as a member of the Agriculture Committee, I helped bring a bipartisan bill to the Senate floor, where it passed with an overwhelming 85 votes and included several of my Minnesota priorities. It will spur job creation, trade, and economic and rural development. Importantly, it strengthens key elements of the farm safety net like crop insurance and other tools to safeguard farmers from unexpected losses. It also adds $100 million to an improved dairy safety net and focuses that assistance on small- and medium-size farms.

To prepare for this year's Farm Bill debate, I needed to hear from Minnesotans. In March, I brought together my 30-member "Farm Bill Working Group" made up of not only farmers, but also key Minnesota experts on energy, nutrition, conservation, rural development, and forestry, who all have a stake in making sure the Farm Bill works for our state. With their help, my staff and I have since held nearly 40 Minnesota Farm Bill meetings to gather input on Minnesota priorities.

As the Farm Bill negotiations with the House begin, I'm hopeful the final bill will continue to reflect what Minnesotans told me they want to see in it. I'll push negotiators to maintain several provisions I offered or championed, including my work to increase use of renewable energy, and my provision that expands access to broadband services in rural communities and tribal areas.

The Senate bill also funds my efforts to help younger and non-traditional farmers — including returning veterans - get started in farming, and it responds to my call to preserve the Sugar Program and the thousands of jobs it supports across the Red River Valley.

I also know that Minnesota producers aren't simply concerned about agriculture policy. I often hear how ever-rising health care costs are hurting them and their families. That's why I've taken seriously my leadership post on the bipartisan Senate Rural Health Caucus. And, its why — during Farm Bill negotiations - I worked with my Republican and Democratic colleagues to create a "Rural Health Liaison" at USDA, who will work with other federal health officials to address rural America's unique health care needs. Bringing down health care costs is one of my top Senate priorities.

And there is growing concern in farm country that the U.S.-imposed tariffs are not part of a long-term, coherent national trade strategy. One Minnesota soybean farmer reports that his crop has lost close to $250,000 in value since our trading partners have retaliated. And he added that the Administration's $12 billion in taxpayer-funded relief is just "scratching the surface" of the amount of economic damage this trade war has caused. I'm pushing top Trump Administration trade officials to quickly provide a clear plan to minimize the impact the President's tariffs are having on farmers.

Make no mistake, we have a lot of work to do to get our farm economy growing again. I'm committed to pushing policies that raise farm prices, open new markets for U.S. producers, and bring down health care costs for Minnesota families.

(Tina Smith represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate)