A group of Kansas Farmers Union members and staff recently spent three days in the nation’s capital urging lawmakers to pass a comprehensive, five-year farm bill, support the Renewable Fuel Standard, and tell their personal stories to members of Congress.
Along with nearly 300 fellow farmers, ranchers, and fishermen from across the U.S., KFU President Donn Teske, Wheaton; Luke Mahin, Courtland, Matt Ubel, Wheaton; Mercedes Taylor-Puckett, McLouth; Nick Levendofsky, Republic; Rick Lindblom, Salina; and Kate Giessel, formerly of Larned, participated in National Farmers Union’s Annual Legislative Fly-In to Washington, D.C., Sept. 9-11.
“Meeting with our representatives in Congress allowed us to personalize the issues currently affecting rural Americans,” Teske said. “This was especially important considering the current situation. A farm bill is not signed and the drought is seriously hurting us all. Having the opportunity to voice our concerns directly to policymakers is one of the most important ways we can make a difference for all family farmers and ranchers.”
The Fly-In began with a briefing at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) building with several USDA officials, including Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Vilsack had harsh words for members of Congress who failed to pass a comprehensive, five-year farm bill, “leaving rural America out to dry,” and he encouraged farmers to demand action.
“We need Congress to work as hard as you do,” Vilsack told the group. “They have nine working days scheduled in September. Last time I checked there were 30 days in September. They don’t necessarily have to go home on Thursday night. They could work on Friday,” Vilsack said. “Shoot, they could do what farmers do, work on Saturday, and maybe even a little on Sunday.”
“You need to say, ‘Enough. Do your job. Get it done.” His remarks received cheers and applause from the entire NFU delegation.
Vilsack touted the importance of the farm bill to everyone in the country, not just people who live and work on the farm or ranch. “It’s not just important to rural America, it’s important to all of America. It’s a huge bill. It’s not just the commodity programs, as important as they are; it’s not just about crop insurance, as significant as that is.” Vilsack said it’s important for trade, job creation, conservation, rural development, research, and many other aspects of the economy.
The U.S. House earlier this year passed a split farm bill, taking the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding out of the bill. Vilsack says that has grave consequences. “Separating nutrition proposals from the farm programs is a mistake,” Vilsack said. “It’s not a mistake for the nutrition programs; it’s a mistake for the farmers.” Vilsack said separating nutrition and farm programs will give urban and suburban lawmakers no reason to vote for farm programs. He also noted that cutting nutrition programs will take money out of farmers’ pockets.
“You’re also going to impact farm income,” he said. “16 cents of that dollar that is spent at the grocery store, as it winds its way through the supply chain, ultimately ends up on the farm. So you cut $40 billion. Multiply that by 16 percent, and that’s billions of dollars of less farm income. There’s a rippling effect here.”
There are many who argue there is significant fraud and waste in SNAP. Vilsack said that’s simply not true.
“Here are the facts: 92 percent of the people receiving SNAP are either senior citizens who lived and worked all their life who find themselves on a very small Social Security check income and are having to decide whether to pay their rent and the heat or buy food; or people with serious disabilities who, by God, if they were given the opportunity would love to be able to work, but because of a disability are unable to do so; children and people who are actually working, adults who are working.”
“The other eight percent,” Vilsack said, “are people who are receiving cash welfare and there are requirements for seeking work.”
During his address, Sec. Vilsack also discussed the Renewable Fuel Standard, country-of-origin labeling (COOL), and other issues facing rural America.
Following the USDA visit, the group split, and one portion visited the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to hear from White House staff officials while the other group visited with staff from the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and heard from Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, (D)-Michigan.
Luke Mahin of Courtland said, “The NFU Fly-in was a great experience for me to learn about the legislative process on national issues like the Farm Bill. I came away with a better understanding of USDA’s role in our economy. Working in rural economic development I had more knowledge in the rural development programs than the FSA or RMA side of things. I’m glad I was able to go with such a passionate group of people from Kansas who really understand the value of serving their community, state, and nation through agriculture. It’s great to be back in Kansas but it’s good to know groups like KFU and NFU are working diligently in D.C. to protect the family farm regardless if that is row crop, CSA, or specialty operations.”
The following two days were spent on Capitol Hill where participants delivered education materials and met with Senators, Representatives, and their staff. “With the current farm bill at a standstill, it is critical Congress hear from constituents about its importance,” said NFU President Roger Johnson. “Discussions with members of Congress are made possible through Fly-In, and it is great to see so many farmers, ranchers, and fishermen having seized the opportunity.”
A press conference was held on the second day of the Fly-In with legendary musician and renewable fuels activist Neil Young, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, Growth Energy CEO and former NFU President Tom Buis, and NFU President Roger Johnson.
Wearing a green T-shirt that read “Go Family Farms,” Neil Young addressed a group of Fly-In participants at a park located near the U.S. Capitol.
“Thank you to the members of Farmers Union for being here today to support this great quest we’re on,” Young said. He spoke about his recent trip across America touting the benefits of biofuels in his 1959 Lincoln that has been converted into a bio-electric vehicle. He calls it the “LincVolt.”
“It is an unbelievable car. It’s great to ride in, it’s fast, and it’s clean. It burns cellulosic ethanol and it has electricity,” Young said. When the car runs out of electricity, the generator kicks in and it burns cellulosic ethanol. “The American farmers and the Canadian farmers and the crops that you grow make this car go.”
Young said he’s pushing to keep the Renewable Fuels Standard which sets a goal of requiring 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into transportation fuel by 2022. There have been efforts by petroleum companies and associations to get rid of that mandate.
“The Renewable Fuels Standard is probably the most important thing we need to get done here (in Washington),” young said. “People spread disinformation that’s just not true about how biofuels aren’t safe for some motors and that America can’t build motors specifically for biofuels.”
“Those who tell you that we need fossil fuels to run your car, to get to work and back and to run the delivery vans around town and the small light-duty pickup trucks, those people are all wrong. We don’t need fossil fuels for that. We have a model that works, and we have ways of making it accessible for every American over the next five years so everyone can afford this.”
“The fact is, there is enough biofuel that we can make in this country that would power all of those cars with generators running on biofuels like mine,” Young said. “It’s a very good fuel. It’s a very clean fuel, and it’s getting better,” he said.
Young said Americans don’t have freedom of choice when it comes to the fuel they put in their vehicles. “There’s a monopoly in existence,” he said. “Every time you get off the road, you enter a monopoly zone: It’s called Big Oil. There’s no reason why every fuel stop that has more than four fuel pumps cannot have an E85 pump.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he’s a big fan of Neil Young, and he even played one of his songs on his cellphone from the podium during the press conference. He was excited about Young’s passion for biofuels.
“We’ve learned a lot about biofuels. We’ve done so much better in producing biofuels from things other than crops that we eat, and that’s important,” Sen. Reid said. “I’m happy about how important our biofuels industry is. Global climate change is here, and it’s all of us working to try and change what we have in America today that will help us around the world set an example of what we need to do.”
To learn more about the “LincVolt” vehicle and about Neil Young’s trek across America, visit www.lincvolt.com. For more information about National Farmers Union’s Annual Legislative Fly-In, go to www.nfu.org/events/fly-ins.