As lawmakers make tough decisions on a projected $5.8 billion state budget deficit, rural Minnesota needs to be at the table, says the head of the state's largest organization representing farmers and ranchers.
"We are broke as a state," Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation President Kevin Paap said Thursday night at the Beltrami County Farm Bureau's annual meeting.
"There's going to be some real tough decisions," he said. "We need to make sure that as we go through those decisions, that all of Minnesota is thought about. Not just agriculture, but outstate Minnesota."
About 75 Farm Bureau members enjoyed a roast beef dinner in the 4-H Building on the Beltrami County Fairgrounds, where they also heard from a number of candidates seeking office this fall.
"In agriculture, it's not really partisan," said Paap. "It's not an R versus a D. We have to work together in agriculture, because there gets to be fewer and fewer of us every year. Sometimes, it's more of a metro versus outstate battle."
As a result, agriculture needs to do a better job of promoting itself so it can be at the table with the decision-makers.
"We need to do a better job to have our consumers help understand what we do as farmers, as ranchers," said Paap. "There's another generation removed from the farm. And by being removed as a generation, they don't understand."
Things have changed in agriculture, even in the past five years, he said, and unless the new generation has been on a farm, they won't understand.
"There's an awful lot of folks where it's been more than five years (since being on a farm), it might be a whole generation," he said.
Paap hailed the Beltrami County Fair as one of the best in the state in getting the message out. "We need to continue to go down that road and educate the consumers about who we are -- help put a face on agriculture. If they don't understand us, don't know where their food comes from ..."
Paap cited a newspaper article from San Francisco a year ago that discussed animal rights and animal welfare versus hunting.
"It said, 'To all you hunters out there, shame on you,'" Paap related. "'You ought to get your meat that was made in the grocery store where no animals were harmed.'"
After a murmur in the crowd, Paap asked Farm Bureau members, "You tell me, do we have a disconnect for agriculture? All we can do, whether it's through Farm Bureau, whether it's through organizations like 4-H, the more things we can do can help put a face on farmers and ranchers."
Agriculture is becoming a special interest group, he said.
With a number of issues affecting agriculture, he urged local Farm Bureau members to quiz their candidates and to work with Farm Bureau lobbyists to gain legislators' attention. He added that the Minnesota Farm Bureau has one of the most aggressive lobbyist function than any other state.
He also asked that more members be recruited. "We are a grass-roots organization. Our mission is to be an advocate for agriculture, driven by the beliefs and policies of our members."
Paap, a corn and soybean producer from Blue Earth County, said anyone can be an advocate for agriculture. "You don't have to be in agriculture, you need to have a tie to agriculture. Everybody says I have nothing to do with agriculture, but my question is, 'Do you eat?' If the answer is yes, I'd say you have a tie to agriculture."
State and federal issues affecting agriculture include the state budget deficit and how it will affect state ag programs, the reimposition of the estate tax in 2011, preparation of the 2012 Farm Bill and biofuels.
Paap jokingly said that if a farmer were to die, this year would be best as there is no estate or "death" tax. After 2010, the estate tax returns to its fullest level, that of taxing estates of $1 million or more, over which the tax rate is 55 percent.
"We've got to have a mechanism where we can move the farm or ranch from one generation to the next," he said. Farm Bureau is advocating for a stepped up basis, where inflation adjustments are made at time of death. It also seeks is indexing for inflation.
"We can't go back and try to revisit this every time land values go up or down," Paap said.
Food safety is also a big issue, he said, in light of the recent 500 million egg recall.
"We do everything we can as farmers in food safety but we need everyone's help," he said. "We do what we can on the farm ... We need to incorporate and use everybody in food safety, not only what we do on the farm but what we do as we transport, as we process -- but it's really the consumer as well.
"We can do a great job in agriculture keeping our food safe, but as a consumer, if you don't clean, chill, separate and cook it properly, we're still going to have some issues," Paap said.