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Kline, farmers discuss 'dire' winterkill

Rep. John Kline listens to Goodhue dairy farmer Brent Lexvold tell of the hardships he's faced after a winterkill destroyed all 190 acres of his grazing hay. Area farmers are facing nearly double the price to bring in livestock feed from Canada and the Dakotas. (Republican Eagle photo by Michael Brun)

GOODHUE - U.S. Rep. John Kline toured the dairy farm of Steve and Mary Mathees Friday to see firsthand the damage caused to area fields by the long winter and wet spring, while also providing an update on the House farm bill passed Thursday.

The exceptionally harsh weather caused a winterkill of alfalfa crops, while standing water late in the season prevented farmers from planting acres of corn and soy beans.

With diminished grazing yields, dairy farmers face a feed shortage that threatens to reduce herd sizes and put smaller farms out of business - a situation Kline called "dire" for Minnesota farmers.

"This year was just devastating," Steve Mathees told Kline and a group of around a dozen area farmers. "It goes all the way from Green Bay to the Dakotas."

"The extent (of the winterkill) is remarkable," Kline said. "It's so widespread."

Brent Lexvold said he had to go out as far as Canada to find suitable hay for his 450-herd dairy farm in Goodhue. All 190 acres of his grazing hay was a total loss this season.

"It's the worst ever," Lexvold said. "My dad has done this for 80 years and he's never seen it this bad."

The U.S.Department of Agriculture declared a crop disaster July 10 for much of southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, including Goodhue County.

The disaster designation gives farmers roughly eight months to work with local Farm Service Agency offices to get aid such as loans to buy feed.

"It's some help, and I'm glad to see them do that," Kline said. "But it may not be enough."

The USDA offers crop insurance through its Risk Management Agency in case of crop failure due to weather, but dairy farmers say insurance for forage crops like alfalfa is minimal.

Additionally, current programs like Prevented Planting Coverage, or PPC, only pay farmers the full amount if they leave fields idle or promise not to hay or graze crops planted on the affected acres before Nov. 1.

Local agricultural groups are calling on the USDA to waive the Nov. 1 restriction to inspire more farmers to plant cover crops - such as alfalfa, oats and clover - which could then be hayed early to help fill the feed gap for livestock.

Planting cover crops on idle fields also would prevent soil erosion in the region, according to the Goodhue County Soil and Water Conservation District.

"Cover crops are normally inexpensive to plant and have tremendous benefits," wrote Glen Roberson, Goodhue County Conservation District manager, in a letter to Kline June 10. The crops reduce erosion, trap nutrients and improve soil quality.

Farm bill moves ahead without food stamps

After meeting with area farmers, Kline gave an update on the House's version of the controversial federal farm bill which passed Thursday.

"The farm bill ... for years has been this monster that almost everybody hates," Kline said. "And yet you need to have a farm bill."

Kline said he voted in favor of the bill because of the importance of having farm policy in place before the current bill expires this year. Without it, farm policy would revert to law enacted in 1949.

The House's farm bill passed on a near party-line vote, with all 196 Democrats and 12 Republicans voting against it.

Kline said the only way to get it passed was to remove a controversial section covering nutrition and food stamps, which he estimated constituted 80 percent of the bill.

"If you can't pass a farm bill out of the House, you can't move it forward and get into conference with the Senate," Kline said. "You're just stuck."

Kline added there is movement in the House to introduce separate legislation covering nutrition and food stamps.

The Senate passed its version of the farm bill last month - with a title on nutrition assistance included - with largely bipartisan support.

A joint House and Senate conference committee is expected to begin the process of consolidating the two bills in the coming weeks.

Kline said he could not be sure what the bill will look like once it comes out of the conference committee, but said he was concerned about the fate of much-debated provisions for dairy price support and insurance.

"My expectation is that I'll hate it," Kline said, "and I'll vote for it because we need to have farm policy."

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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