“The pipes broke, the motors wouldn’t work, the silo froze up and then I slipped on the ice. My body isn’t getting any younger.” The farm woman was sharing her life with her Senator. This was a memory all too familiar to this Senator.
Life is hard on the farm; especially in January. When farm prices are up, inputs like fuel, fertilizer and protein are also more expensive. There is the constant fear farm prices will fall. Add in health problems, bad weather and old machinery.
This past week I had the pleasure to talk with many farmers. I addressed four state-wide conventions – Farm Bureau, Farmers Union and two other agriculture related groups. When I spoke to farmers, I encouraged them to become a part of the political process. “We need your voice in Madison.” I told them.
I also had the opportunity to listen to farmers at the conventions and as they visited my Senate office during “Ag Day at the Capitol”.
What I heard was far more important than what I said.
Farmers are concerned about the price of land, including rental land. They are concerned about new farmers entering agriculture. Farmers told me about the need for farm safety. I heard stories about young men who had lost limbs and shook more than my share of hands missing fingers.
Farmers pour their hearts, souls and bodies into making our food, fiber and, these days, fuel. Yet, so often, the stories of farmer’s lives are never told.
Farming is about land. Without land there is no farm. These days, land is increasingly in short supply. Many farmers told me of the high price they pay to rent land. Farmers told me about good, flat, ground being planted to trees to capture federal land payments.
“It just doesn’t seem right,” a Monroe County farmer said. “We need land to spread manure. Why are the federal programs taking land out of production when we need land?”
We are losing farm land at a rate of 30,000 acres a year and more land is being broken down into small, non-farmable parcels.
Farmers from Pierce to Monroe County told me stories about competition for land. Much competition came from fellow farmers expanding their cattle herds and needing additional land for manure spreading. The problems were made worse when non-residents bought farm land and stopped using it for any type of agricultural activity.
These non-residents enrolled land into the state’s Managed Forest Program and took it off the county’s tax base, raising property taxes for the remaining residents. ‘Use value’ has helped farmers pay property taxes but, again, the costs are shifted to other rural residents. Problems with taxes and paying for rural schools were on the minds of farmers.
Many school board members are farmers. Trying to balance the books is extremely when our rural schools are losing students. Farmers shared a deep concern about the future of our rural schools.
Almost every conversation I had with farmers eventually turned to health care. Some stories were repeated; babies born to just-married parents, insurance companies that require a couple to be married six months before a pregnancy. A new farm family is blessed with a new baby but saddled with a $12,000 to $15,000 debt for the birth. The insurance company would not pay because the baby was conceived after the couple was married only 5 ½ months.
I heard stories of claims for an emergency appendectomy denied because of pre-existing conditions; of farmers paying $12,000 a year for a policy with two $5,000 deductibles; people with cancer unable to find any affordable insurance or paying $24,000 a year for poor insurance.
Each story served as a solid reminder of my mission to serve and to raise up the voices that are not always heard. Big oil companies and drug companies don’t need me to represent them. They pay plenty to have their voices heard. My job is representing those who don’t have a well paid lobbyist – to tell their story on the Senate floor.
Democracy works when ordinary people help shape the decision of what laws need to be passed and how they should be written. It is through the stories that I learn what needs to be done and how to do it. I am grateful to all those who take the time to inspire this Senator through their voice and their story.