AXTELL — Wilcox farmer Brad Lundeen may have given the ranking Republican member on the House Agriculture Committee a new talking point Saturday on why Congress should support a bill to improve broadband infrastructure in rural America.
During a Nebraska Farm Bureau tour stop southeast of Axtell, Lundeen pulled out his cellphone to show Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania apps that allow him and other farmers to remotely manage irrigation systems and review water use data.
Thompson said broadband pockets and gaps remain in rural areas of the United States that limits internet use and adoption of new technologies by farmers and other rural residents.
On July 14, the House Ag Committee’s 51 members unanimously approved a broadband-specific bill, which have options to help fund broadband improvements.
“We packed into that all the right tools for people in rural America to access USDA programs,” Thompson said.
He had wanted the Democratic leadership to move the bipartisan-supported bill to a quick floor vote by the end of July, but that didn’t happen. He believes it now will be the last two weeks of September, at the earliest, before there will be a House vote.
Congress is returning from to Washington from its August break for a few days this week to work on the infrastructure bill — Thompson described it as a “train wreck” — that could include some funds for broadband infrastructure.
Broadband service also is a top issue for Axtell farmer Steve Nelson, the immediate past president of Nebraska Farm Bureau. He said broadband service is vital to ag producers because the technology now exists to remotely monitor many things on farms and ranches.
Improvements also are needed to more traditional infrastructures such as roads, bridges, railways and river structures that are vital to move agriculture products and other goods across the country. Nelson said that’s particularly important to Nebraska because one-third of its agriculture products are exported.
Tax issues that could make transitions from one generation of farmers and ranchers to the next even more difficult also is at the top of Thompson’s list. He said the “tax threats” come from a Biden Administration plan to change the step-up basis, which could increase inheritance or “death” taxes.
He added that the threat comes at a time when it already is difficult to encourage young people to return to their families’ ag-related businesses.
Thompson also is concerned about efforts to return to the 2015 version of the “Waters of the United States” plan to protect water resources. He said the concern is that many agriculture acres will be categorized in a way that would require landowners to get federal permits to use those acres.
On a more positive note, Greg Ibach of Sumner, a former state ag director and an undersecretary of agriculture in the Trump Administration, said ag trade is growing. Much of the boost is coming from China, which is buying record amounts of U.S. commodities.
He added that it’s important to make sure trading partners follow terms of agreements renegotiated during the past five years.
Nebraska ag today
When asked how 2021 is shaping up for Nebraska agriculture, Ibach replied, “The crops around here look great ... There still are some dry spots in Nebraska, but for the most part, there’s a lot of good crops around Nebraska.”
Higher grain prices give hope to row crop farmers, but the meat industry has been slower to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic declines, he said.
Nelson agreed, saying, “The economics are pretty good. We have (grain) pricing opportunities we don’t always have. But marketing is always tough.” He acknowledged that the higher prices for feedgrains are a challenge for livestock producers.
“Demand worldwide is increasing and the domestic market is strong,” Ibach said about the outlook for livestock producers.
Two issues of corn for the ag economy are input costs and labor availability, Nelson said.
“The cautionary note would be the costs of inputs for next year,” he said. “The cost of fertilizer has been climbing, and the costs of fuel and energy as well.”
“One of the biggest problems I think practically every business is having is finding help,” Nelson continued. When manufacturers can’t hire enough help, it can cause delays and higher costs for products ag producers need.
Although difficulties in hiring agriculture workers, particularly seasonal workers, isn’t as big of an issue in Nebraska as it is in states with a lot of fresh produce, it is a concern. “There’s still work to be done,” Nelson said.