Written by Jonathan Eisenthal
What would you do? What would you say? If you had the opportunity to host a top official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on your family farm?
For an hour on Wednesday, Plato, Minn., farmer Brian Thalmann, his dad Randall, and his son Adam, visited with Alexis Taylor, Deputy Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at USDA. Taylor is the official directly in charge of the farm program, crop insurance and the USDA’s export promotion agency.
One of the topics Brian brought up was credit, which has become tight in farm country and in the current market environment, yet represents the lifeblood of farmers.
“Credit depends on one thing,” Thalmann said. “A strong crop insurance program. This is the only thing that gives banks the confidence to say yes to farmers for the operating and capital-expenditure loans that keep them in operation every growing season.”
Randall and Taylor walked through a history of the ups and downs of the farm program, both agreeing that there are parts that work and others that represent a work in progress, which is the reason for the under secretary to visit with farmers.
Taylor grew up on an Iowa farm and is well-versed in how the USDA’s programs impact farmers. Thalmann focused on how their family farm, a continuous venture since 1877, depends on a vital side business.
Several decades ago, when Randall was first farming on his own, he became a seed dealer. And even though it was only 10 percent of the farm’s income, the USDA farm program at that time excluded the Thalmanns on that basis. The seed business — they grow custom soybeans for seed for Stine and its host of major seed company customers — now represents between 30-40 percent of the farm’s revenue.
Thankfully, farm program rules no longer discriminate against such entrepreneurial activity.
The Thalmanns also covered other challenges they’ve faced with USDA farm programs over the years and discussed possible solutions with Taylor.
With water quality and environmental concerns about corn farming rising, the Thalmanns spent part of the visit talking about conservation efforts on their farm and investments the Minnesota Corn Growers Association is making in research and initiatives to help farmers better manage nitrogen fertilizer and protect water quality.
Randall and Brian also highlighted the incredible bounty of biomass and organic matter in the soil generated by today’s corn varieties. With the root mass and the stalks and leaves that remain after harvest, they are adding 20,000 pounds of organic matter per acre — biomass that returns to the earth and enriches the soil.
The importance of ethanol to Minnesota farmers was also discussed. The Thalmanns are shareholders at Heartland Corn Products ethanol plant in Winthrop, built in 1995.
“Our goal is to add value to 100 percent of our grain,” Brian said. “Over the years we have been able to build up our investment in Heartland Corn Products, so that together with our seed business, we’ve achieved that goal. We also contract with other area farmers to produce some of our soybean, oats and wheat seed, so we are helping other farmers add value to their production. Really, adding value is the way for farmers to build a strong future for American agriculture.”