Interview: Rep. Collin Peterson, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Agriculture

Collin Peterson headshot web

Collin Peterson was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Seventh Congressional District of Minnesota in 1990. His primarily rural and agricultural district reaches from the Canadian border in the north, almost to the Iowa state line in the south, along Minnesota’s border with North and South Dakota. Peterson is ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture, which has jurisdiction over a wide range of agriculture and rural development issues, including the farm bill, renewable energy, disaster assistance, nutrition, crop insurance, conservation, rural development, international trade, futures market regulation, animal and plant health, agricultural research, bioterrorism, forestry, and others.

Peterson grew up on a farm near Glyndon, Minnesota, and was educated in the local public schools. He graduated from Minnesota State University-Moorhead in 1966 with a double major in business administration and accounting, and also served in the North Dakota National Guard from 1963 to 1969. Before being elected to the House of Representatives, he was a Certified Public Accountant and small business owner in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, and also served for 10 years in the Minnesota State Senate.

In the 1960s, Peterson also found time to play guitar and sing with a band known as “Collin and the Establishment.” He is a musician, and in recent years, he has performed with Willie Nelson at Farm Aid concerts, jazz legend Lonnie Brooks, with several other members of Congress at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and with rock guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter at several Washington, D.C. venues. He is a member of the American Legion’s Ninth District Band.

Peterson has organized and played in congressional rock bands, including The Amendments and the Second Amendments. He and his colleagues have performed at charity events in Washington, D.C. The Second Amendments also performed for U.S. troops in Germany, Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and performed at WE Fest in Minnesota and Farm Aid in Illinois.

Peterson is a private pilot who often flies his own single-engine plane to get around his large district and visit with his constituency. He also is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys hunting and fishing whenever time permits.

During his public service career, Peterson has been a strong advocate for farmers and small business owners and a leader on both federal tax policy and conservation issues. He has been a leader on the last three farm bills passed by Congress. He is a founding member of the conservative Democrats’ “Blue Dog” Coalition, which continues to be a voice for fiscal responsibility and pragmatic government policies. Peterson is the most senior member of the House Committee on Agriculture and currently serves as its ranking member. He previously served as chairman in the 110th and 111th Congresses and as ranking member in the 109th Congress.

Peterson has taken a leading role in Congress promoting biofuels as a homegrown way for America to meet its growing energy needs, and he has introduced legislation to expand biofuel production and use. Peterson’s leadership led to the successful passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, which preserved the safety net for farmers while making historic new investments in food, farm, and conservation programs that are priorities for all Americans.

Peterson responded to the following questions in early January 2018.

 

U.S. Agriculture Outlook: By the time this publication goes to press, we will have had a new president in the White House for a year, as well as new leadership at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In what ways do you think U.S. agricultural producers are better off with this new leadership? In what ways have they been harmed?

Rep. Collin Peterson: Rolling back some regulations at the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], like the Waters of the U.S. or WOTUS rule, has benefitted agriculture. Previously, I don’t think there was much understanding of what we do in agriculture, which led to regulations that were unworkable for agriculture.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the countryside right now around the outcome of NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] negotiations and the effect a potential withdrawal from the agreement could have on agriculture and rural communities. Immigration and an adequate agriculture labor workforce are also big issues for agriculture, and I think the lack of certainty is a concern for farmers.

Collin Peterson roundtable web

House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Rep. Collin Peterson (center, seated at table) and California Congressmen Jimmy Panetta (left) and Jim Costa (right) hosted an agriculture roundtable session at Hartnell College in Salinas, California. The House Committee on Agriculture held roundtables and listening sessions across the country in anticipation of legislative work on the next farm bill, as the provisions in the current farm bill are due to expire Sept. 30, 2018. Credit: Office of Congressman Jim Costa

Earlier this year, the House Committee on Agriculture held several farm bill listening sessions with farmers and other stakeholders. What were the main concerns you heard in those sessions? How have those sessions informed the work currently being done to craft the next farm bill?

The biggest takeaway from the listening sessions [was] to leave crop insurance alone. It’s working and working as intended. We were also told not to cut SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]. While I think there are some reasonable changes we can make to the program, there are valid concerns that there could be attempts to significantly cut or separate SNAP from the farm bill, which I think would bring the bill down. There was also a lot of discussion around issue areas that we know need to be addressed, such as cotton and dairy, as well as some programs that I think can be improved upon, like conservation.

Can you give U.S. Agriculture Outlook readers an update on where things currently stand with the 2018 Farm Bill? When do you expect the legislation might pass?

The staffs of the House Agriculture Committee are working together to have a bipartisan bill we can share with our colleagues in the coming weeks. The chairman has said he would like to pass a farm bill in the first quarter of 2018, and I support him on that. The sooner the better as far as I’m concerned. It seems, however, that the Senate is a lot further behind.

In the spring of 2017, the Trump administration released its proposed 2018 budget, which included billions in cuts to the USDA’s funding, in particular for agricultural research, SNAP, and rural infrastructure and economic development, as well as limits on farm subsidies. While those cuts didn’t happen, do you foresee any noteworthy funding changes in those targeted areas when the farm bill is passed?

Unlike the last farm bill, I don’t think we’ll be looking to make cuts to find savings. It’s going to be more of an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, farm bill because we won’t have new money to work with. I am concerned, and have repeatedly warned my colleagues about cuts to SNAP. If they go after the program, I just don’t think we’ll have the votes to pass a farm bill at all. We saw this happen in 2013 when the farm bill failed on the floor of the House after amendments were added that drastically reduced SNAP.

Trump has called NAFTA “the worst trade deal,” and his administration has undertaken negotiations to “rebalance” the agreement. Can you give a couple of examples of how trade is currently out of balance in regard to U.S. agriculture and how the administration envisions its proposed changes to NAFTA will bring back balance?

The most glaring example is how NAFTA treats dairy. Canada has been allowed to continue its supply management system and their new Class 7 pricing is disrupting U.S. and, potentially, world dairy markets. The No. 3 and No. 5 largest dairy companies in the United States are now owned by Canadians. I’ve raised this issue with the administration, but frankly, I’m not holding my breath on finding a solution. But NAFTA is beneficial to other parts of agriculture and I’ve repeatedly urged the administration not to screw up the good parts that are working in an attempt to secure a better deal.

Can you describe the status of the safety net currently in place for agricultural producers? What’s working? What isn’t?

By and large the safety net is working. I am concerned, though, because the current safety net was written during a time when we had higher prices. Prices have dropped and if they continue to do so, and yields decrease, we could be in for some trouble. So we’re looking at ways to improve the safety net to better protect against lower prices. Crop insurance continues to be an important tool for farmers.

What effect have the natural disasters of 2017 (California wildfires, hurricanes, etc.) had on U.S. agriculture? How prepared is the United States to deal with the impact such events might have on farmers and ranchers, their livelihoods, and the country’s food supply?

Wildfires, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events have all impacted farmers this year. The House recently passed a disaster relief package, which is a positive first step. I’m hopeful the Senate will continue this discussion and approve something soon. These events are one of the reasons crop insurance and other risk management programs are so important to producers. There are some improvements we can make to the farm bill disaster programs either as part of the appropriations process or in the farm bill.

How do you see changes in the tax bill that’s currently working through Congress playing out for America’s agricultural producers?

It remains to be seen in part because of the haphazard way the bill was put together. Over the next year we’re likely to discover all kinds of loopholes, which will likely require Congress to step in and take up a correction bill. We are already seeing these unintended consequences with the replacement for treatment of cooperative income under Section 199. Right now, there unfortunately isn’t a lot of profit in agriculture, so I don’t think it matters that much to farmers, besides trying to figure out how some of these new provisions are going to work.

Finally, can you tell us a bit about agriculture in your state? What is Minnesota’s most important agricultural product?

Minnesota is a large and diverse agriculture state. We are the No. 1 producer of turkeys and sugarbeets in the nation but also grow corn, soybeans, barley, and wheat and raise livestock. My district, the Seventh Congressional District, ranks second in total farm operators and farms.

Are there specific or unique concerns or considerations that Minnesota farmers have that you strive to address in Washington?

I try to listen. I really think that listening to farmers and learning more about what it is they do is the best way to understand how our work in Washington will impact their operations. Farmers have a great story to tell, and the more they can share that story the better.

This article was originally published in the 2018 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.

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