South Dakota farmers and ranchers meet with congressional leaders and staff during the annual National Farmers Union D.C. Fly-In, held virtually Sept. 14-18.
“This is a pivotal time in agriculture,” said Doug Sombke, president S.D. Farmers Union. “Congressional leaders need to hear from us. If we don’t share our story, who will?”
Sombke said pre-COVID-19, South Dakota’s number one industry of agriculture was suffering on all fronts: rock bottom grain, livestock and ethanol markets. The pandemic exaggerated all these issues.
“There is no better time to address the real problems than when they are really bad,” said Sombke. “We can hire a lobbyist, but they don’t carry the weight that farmers and ranchers do, sharing their personal story – sharing what 45 percent profit loss looks like for their families and communities.”
Although the 2020 fly-In will be different, it will be no less effective said Rob Larew, president National Farmers Union.
“Farmers are their own best advocates,” Larew said. “They understand the real-life problems they deal with every day better than anyone does. And they have really good ideas about how to fix them. That’s why it’s so critical that legislators hear from farmers directly.”
Throughout the four-day fly-In, farmers and ranchers sit down for video chats with Congressional leaders and their staffs. They will also hear from Sonny Perdue, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and other U.S. Department of Agriculture staff.
“We are all struggling. Leaders need to hear it firsthand,” said Oren Lesmeister, a Parade cattle producer, small business owner and District 28A legislator. “My hope is we will actually get to talk with more leaders than in the past because this format is more flexible.”
Lesmeister is among the South Dakotans who set aside time for video conferences this week. Sombke said the time these family farmers and ranchers invest does make a difference. “Over the years, I have seen Congressional leaders change direction on policy after a fly-In,” he said. “They may think they are doing what is best for farmers and rural America, but when they hear from actual farmers, they are able to understand what is right for American agriculture.”
Inventory management is among the key issues National Farmers Union has prioritized for farmers and ranchers to discuss with leaders this week.
“We need to address the inventory management of our own products. Every other industry does this, why is agriculture different,” Sombke asked. “When we market our commodities, we are told what we will receive, not asked what we will accept.”
Over supply, Sombke said, has been an issue for generations. An issue that historically, Mother Nature resolved – but today’s technology helps crops thrive in the midst of many natural disasters. “We need to level out the market bumps. Today, the highs are higher and the lows are lower…and sustained longer.”
With the 2023 Farm Bill on the horizon, Sombke said the 2020 fly-In provides a good opportunity to begin conversations around potential solutions. “Oversupply is not just a crop issue. Look at what has occurred during COVID-19 in the livestock and dairy industries,” Sombke said.
Supporting biofuels production as an economic driver is another topic family farmers will discuss. Today, in South Dakota, ethanol is a $4 billion industry. If more drivers had access to higher ethanol blends, like E30, Sombke explained its impact could double. “It could be an $8 billion economic driver in South Dakota alone. And ethanol is a safe fuel. It gets rid of toxins in traditional gasoline.”
Other topics include
Next steps for economic recovery and stimulus legislation
Expanding and improving access to affordable, reliable broadband in rural America
Damaging effects of anticompetitive practices by meatpackers and processors in the livestock sector
Ways to improve the rural health care system during the pandemic
“These are important topics. The future of family farms and ranches really does depend on how policies are established,” Sombke said.