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The politics of farming

Heading into the new year, farmers in our region face challenges from both weather and politics. A drought cut into yield during the 2018 growing season. On the political side, President Trump imposed a tariff on imports from China in July, prompting China to retaliate with a 25 percent tariff on soybean imports. U.S. soybean prices declined by roughly $2 a bushel since March. On top of that, Congress delayed passing a new farm bill by its September deadline, finally reaching an agreement as the year drew to a close.

In mid-November, Brooks Hurst had nearly finished harvesting 6,000 acres of soybeans on his family farm near Tarkio, Mo. However, he had yet to sell any beans from the 2018 crop.

“We watch where every penny goes, and we’ve made long-term investments in on-farm storage, so we have more options in marketing the crop,” said Hurst, president of the Missouri Soybean Association and member of the American Soybean Association board. He farms with his father, Kevin; his grandfather, Charlie; his uncles, Blake and Brooks; and his two younger brothers, Dallas and Taylor.

Low market prices are mostly to blame for the Hursts’ hesitation to sell new-crop soybeans. In July, the Trump administration imposed 25 percent tariffs on Chinese products such as steel and aluminum. China responded by placing duties on U.S. imports, mostly agricultural products, with soybeans most impacted. Soybean prices have declined by approximately 20 percent since the tariffs went into effect.

The ability to store soybeans helped to insulate the Hursts from this decrease, but others may not be so fortunate.

“Our association has placed a high priority on developing our international markets and export relationships for many years,” Hurst said. “Our farmers are counting on having access to these markets and the demand they create for U.S. soybeans. What we’re seeing now is a direct hit to farmers and rural communities.”

Missouri farmers raised an average of 247 million soybeans annually over the past three years, according to the University of Missouri Extension Service’s Commercial Agriculture Program. Typically, more than half of Missouri’s annual soybean crop is exported, with nearly one in every three rows of soybeans destined for China.

Chinese citizens are demanding more pork as their economy develops, and China feeds beans to an increasing number of hogs. The Chinese population also consumes an abundance of soy cooking oil.

MU estimated that a $2-per-bushel decrease in soybean prices costs Missouri farmers nearly half a billion dollars, which means $212 million in lost earnings for workers and business owners and 3,000 fewer jobs statewide.  

The American Soybean Association released this statement in late September: “Some trade analysts say it will be impossible for China to find enough soybeans and other protein feeds from other sources, and that China will continue to depend on the U.S. for a significant amount of its imports. But even if the U.S. keeps half of its soybean market in China, the value of exports due to lower prices will fall to an estimated $5.6 billion from the $14 billion sold in 2017. The outlook is for continued low prices and declining U.S. soybean production for years to come.”  

MFA handling fewer beans

Hurst wouldn’t be surprised if farmers shift to planting more corn in 2019. Eric Williams, manager of grain trading for MFA Incorporated, agrees.

“The tariff will skew how we plant,” Williams said. “If I were a farmer, I’d plant more corn.”

In the midst of the 2018 harvest in November, Williams said MFA was handling fewer soybeans than usual.

“We’re seeing beans come across our scales, but not in the volume that other states are seeing, maybe due to the drought in parts of our trade area,” Williams said. “Also, some farmers are holding more beans in their own storage than in 2017 and are selling more corn now since corn prices haven’t been as affected by the tariff.”

Still, Williams predicts the 2018 U.S. soybean crop will be huge, on top of a large carryover from the 2017 crop. Large carryovers can depress market prices. However, Williams said MFA’s Grain Division positions itself to withstand different dynamics in the market every year.

Why a tariff?

As a founding partner with Global AgriTrends, Brett Stuart analyzes global and trading trends. He explains why the U.S. imposed tariffs on China.

“China has used many different means to keep U.S. products out, including non-scientific restrictions on U.S. beef, pork and poultry as well as feedstuffs,” Stuart said. “The current China duties retaliate against the Trump administration’s efforts to improve market access for U.S. farmers. Whether it succeeds is yet to be seen. But the reality is that outside of soybeans, China has never really opened to U.S. agriculture.”

Now, Stuart adds, Chinese officials have implemented an embargo of sorts, not allowing some U.S. soybeans in even if importers pay the duty. He warns that the trade war could be prolonged.

“The administration’s demands are big, broad and vague: intellectual property theft, market access, dumping, subsidizing,” Stuart said. “Those are difficult to fix in China. Chinese duties could last through 2019.”  

Help comes from subsidies

With $27 billion of American agricultural exports affected, the U.S. announced it will subsidize American farmers for up to $12 billion through the Market Facilitation Program to offset losses resulting from China’s retaliatory tariff.

“Soybean farmers were scheduled to receive half of the promised amount—82.5 cents per bushel—on Dec. 3,” Williams explained. “If the tariffs go away, the federal government doesn’t have to pay the rest of the subsidies.”

While grain handlers like MFA can easily report the volume of soybeans they’re holding, USDA would have to send personnel to farms that store their own beans, Williams added.

“I don’t know how USDA will do it all,” he said. “Farmers don’t want a handout—they’d rather earn their profits in the marketplace. I don’t have a solution, but everyone will be happy when we can get away from tariffs.”   

The deadline for applying for USDA’s Market Facilitation Program is Jan. 15, 2019. The program will provide payments to soybean, corn, cotton, dairy, hog and wheat producers based on 2018 production. Contact your local Farm Service Agency, or visit www.farmers.gov/manage/mfp.  

USMCA cheers up corn and soy growers

September brought better news when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was replaced with the slightly revised U.S., Mexico and Canada Agreement (USMCA), allowing trade between the three nations to remain duty-free. President Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed the USMCA Nov. 30 at the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires.

“We appreciate the stability this stands to bring soybean producers in the North American markets,” Hurst says. “U.S. soy exports to Canada and Mexico were almost $3 billion in 2017, with Mexico the No. 2 export market for U.S. soybeans, after China.”

Corn growers were pleased as well. In 2017, the U.S. exported more than $3 billion of corn and corn products to Mexico and Canada, according to the National Corn Growers Association. Mexico is the top importer of U.S. corn.

No one can predict the outcome of the president’s bold trade strategy, but it’s certain to affect agreements with other nations.

“With USMCA and the Korean-U.S. trade agreement mostly complete, the focus is on China,” Stuart said. “However, the administration intends to begin free trade talks with Japan, the EU and Britain. Those markets hold key benefits for U.S. agriculture.”  

Prices may rally  

MFA’s Williams is hopeful for positive news in the soybean market, quoting a Nov. 30 St. Louis daily cash price for soybeans of $8.72, while March 2019 futures were priced at $9.05.

“Some farmers will hold onto a high percentage of their beans,” he said, “and an upside price rally is possible in 2019.”

Williams also reports that the U.S. continues to export soybeans to China, although at a slower pace. Some worry that Brazil will step in and capture the U.S. market.

“Brazil can’t supply all of China’s needs,” Williams said. “Besides, Brazil is selling beans for about 20 percent higher than before the tariff. China’s going to pay more, no matter where they source it. China accounts for roughly 60 percent of world demand for soybeans, and eventually they’ve got to come to North or South America to get what they need.”

When will we see a new farm bill?

The Sept. 30, 2018, deadline for a new farm bill came and went without resolve, even though Congress had been working on new legislation throughout the year. That’s not surprising to those in agricultural circles, said Gary Marshall, CEO of the Missouri Corn Growers Association.  

In late November, however, Farm Bill negotiators said they had reached an “agreement in principle,” offering hope of breaking the impasse and sending legislation to President Trump before the end of the year. Details of the deal had not been released as of press time.

At issue has been a provision in the new draft of the bill that would impose stricter work requirements for recipients of food stamps. The Republican-led House of Representatives passed the $867 billion bill in June with the tougher requirements, over the objections of Democrats. The Senate, meanwhile, passed its own bipartisan version that excluded the requirements.

“The farm bill is intended to manage risk and provide certainty by offering farmers a safety net in times of hardship and ensuring the United States remains the safest and most effective food source in the world,” said Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Republican, who in July was named to serve on the Conference Committee formed to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

The newly re-elected congresswoman has a personal stake in the bill. She, her husband, Lowell, and their daughter, Tiffany, farm near Harrisonville, Mo.

“We, like all farmers, are feeling the effects of lower prices,” she said, adding that she hopes for a resolution on trade with China soon.  

For an outlook on the new farm bill, we talked with Hartzler, Marshall and Chuck Conners, president of National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC). MFA Incorporated is a farmer-owned cooperative and a member of NCFC.

Crop insurance

Conners predicts that the final farm bill will reflect strong support for crop insurance.  

“The farm bill isn’t the magic bullet when it comes to low prices affecting agriculture,” Conners said. “It can provide a safety net to keep losses from becoming even more catastrophic.”

Commodity support programs and crop insurance are the most important elements of the safety net, he added.

Marshall agrees: “Crop insurance is our only real protection from drought or low prices.”   

Mike Smith, principal agent for MFA Crop Insurance, assures farmers that even if the farm bill is further delayed, it won’t affect the crop insurance program for 2018.  


Conners, Marshall and Hartzler all want to see provisions to increase exports. Since NCFC represents grain-marketing cooperatives such as MFA, Conners said expanded access to export markets is a high priority.  

Corn and soybean growers associations also have skin in the game. Both devote a share of check-off funds collected from grower-members to foreign market development.


In our farm bill discussions, we found a consensus of support for conservation funding.

“Our members use a lot of conservation dollars,” Marshall said. “The state of Missouri matches federal dollars to help us put crop protection where it’s supposed to go.”
Conners thinks we’ll see a continued trend towards consolidating working lands programs.

“Overall funding will likely stay the same or possibly increase,” he said.  

Hartzler said she would like to roll the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) authority into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to ensure decisions are made closer to ranchers and landowners.


The biggest bone of contention between the House and Senate versions of the bill is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The program benefits 40 million Americans and makes up 80 percent of farm bill funding. The House bill requires SNAP recipients to work or get job training; the Senate version doesn’t include those stipulations. The final legislation will likely not include the stricter requirements.

“Any action on nutrition programs should preserve the broad-based coalition that has ensured strong support for farm programs in the past,” Conners said. “We will probably see some changes to SNAP, but the end result will be much closer to the Senate’s legislation than to the House’s provisions on work requirements.”

Research, the internet and labor

Additional farm bill priorities, according to Hartzler, are continued research and development funding, along with improving access to high-speed Internet.

“The House version of the farm bill includes my provision to set minimum speeds and expand access to Rural Utility Services loans and loan guarantees,” she said.  

Access to labor is a challenge for many farmers. NCFC calls for a guest worker program and other reforms, but Conners admits the outlook remains uncertain with the contentious immigration issue.

As of press time on Nov. 30, the farm bill’s language was yet to be finalized. The latest debate among lawmakers focused on forestry provisions The latest debate among lawmakers focused on forestry provisions following the deadly wildfires in California. Once voted on, the bill goes to the president for signing.


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In this November 2018 issue

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Masters of metal


They’ve been mastering this skill for nearly 50 years, ever since Kenneth and Barbara Carr established a metal fabrication shop in 1970 in Lebanon, Mo. They named their company Carmeco—an amalgamation of Carr Metal Company—and began making agricultural equipment in a 6,000-square-foot facility. Today, Carmeco has grown to nearly 100,000 square feet and handles a wide range of metal products, from appliance components to semi-trailer parts.

Both Kenneth and Barbara have passed away, but their descendants carry on Carmeco. Their son, Jeff, his wife, Janet, and their sons, John, Jared and Joe, run the company.

“This is all I’ve ever known,” said John. “This place started before I was born, and I grew up here—my brothers did, too. All we know is how to make things out of metal.”

Joining the family business full time in 2000 after college, John is the company’s chief visionary officer and has helped expand Carmeco’s identity as a “job shop”— manufacturing metal products for others—to include self-contained businesses of its own. In 2003, the Carr family branched out and bought Osagian Canoes, a popular brand of aluminum watercraft, which are now made in Carmeco’s Lebanon facility.

“My brothers and I decided we needed to diversify because we’d lost some business to China, and we wanted to have control over a product that we owned,” John said. “Since then, we’ve gotten a lot more productive and gotten some of that business back, but we’re still looking for other ways to grow the company.”

In 2006, Carmeco returned to its agricultural roots when the family purchased a bulk feed bin business, TOBB Products, from its owner, Steve Ennis. The product line was the perfect fit for Carmeco, John said. Not only was the factory outfitted to handle the fabrication, but the Carrs also raise cattle and know firsthand the positives and pitfalls of feeding equipment. They started a cow/calf operation 25 years ago, and the brothers and their dad recently partnered in purchasing another 330 acres adjacent to family land. They are removing timber and renovating pastures with plans to expand their beef operation, which currently numbers 60 head.

“The gentleman who was making the product wanted to get out of the business and approached us with an opportunity to buy his company,” John explained. “We knew we could make these bins. We had the equipment, and it was something that interested us as farmers ourselves. We understand that when it comes time to feed livestock, farmers need to be fast and efficient. And we know that they’re always looking for ways to save some money.”

TOBB products fill a niche between small-scale producers with only a few head of livestock and large cattle operations, John said. Stationary bulk bins are available in capacities of one, two, three and five tons along with two-ton and three-ton portable models.

“I know farmers are looking for ways to save money wherever possible,” he said. “We fill a need for producers who want to buy feed in bulk at a lower cost per ton but don’t have enough head to need a great big grain bin. They can safely store their feed in our bins and take advantage of price breaks when they can. Plus, it saves the waste and hassle of dealing with feed bags.”

After acquiring TOBB and bringing the manufacturing process in house, Carmeco adapted the design to make it easier to manufacture, which helped with quality issues, John said. For example, Carmeco’s team added flanges to the edges of the steel components to streamline the welding process. And they listened to customer feedback and devised a convenient handle that allows the lid to be opened from the ground rather than having to climb to the top of the bin.

TOBB bins are not only made in Missouri, they’re made almost entirely with Missouri materials, from steel to tires, John said. It’s a point of pride for the company and for MFA Incorporated, which officially added TOBB Products as a Farm Supply vendor in February 2017. MFA and its affiliates are the main Midwest distributors for the product line.

“Given TOBB’s location in south central Missouri, their affordable prices and quality of product produced, it was a no-brainer for us to grow a relationship with them to better service our stores and producers,” said Eric Allen, MFA farm supply product manager. “The folks at TOBB Products are very easy to work with and keep customer service to a high standard.”

This customer-centric focus helps set TOBB apart from the competition, said Sales Manager Kris Deitz.

“Simply put, we take care of our customers,” Kris said. “We take pride in manufacturing quality products that serve their needs, and we stand behind those products.”

Bins are made of 14-gauge and 16-gauge steel and feature an all-welded construction to contribute to their longevity. Portable models are designed with full axles and leaf-spring suspension for smoother hauling.

“TOBB bins are built to last, but they’re not over-built,” Kris said. “There’s a balance between manufacturing it to be quality while also making it affordable. That’s why you see competitive pricing on TOBB products.”

All the bins are painted in standard colors such as gray, blue, red and green, and they can also be custom-painted upon request.

“We’ve had farmers who wanted a bin to match their barn and distributors who wanted a specific color to match their logo,” Kris said. “That’s another way to be a leader in customer service—give the customers what they want.”

The company’s 55 employees also embody that spirit of customer service, John said. Monthly small group meetings allow the staff to share concerns and ideas with management to not only improve the work environment but also the products.

“We want employees to be involved in the process because they are the ones making these products every day,” he said. “We feel like we have the best employees in the world, and they tend to stay around here awhile. As a matter of fact, we have a gentleman, Glen Mebruer, who’s worked here for 48 years. He was the first non-family employee, so he’s been with us from Day 1.”

In 2016, Carmeco expanded the TOBB line to include creep feeders with 162-bushel capacity. Other products are in the planning stages, John said, including metal bunk feeders and a smaller pull-behind bin designed for an all-terrain vehicle. The proverbial wheels are always turning, he said, looking for the next niche for his family’s company.

“One of our goals for Carmeco is to get into other product lines or create something we can manufacture that makes feeding cattle easier or saves money for farmers,” John said. “We’re working toward taking the business to the next level. Between me and my brothers, we have 10 children, and we want there to be a future here for at least some of them.”

For more information on TOBB bins, talk with the farm supply specialists at your MFA Agri Services or AGChoice location, or visit online at www.tobb.biz.

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Critical care

Health care coverage is a considerable concern these days—especially if you’re self-employed. Farming remains one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations, and finding the right coverage can be critical. This tale of two farmers gives different perspectives on how they handle health insurance.

When row-crop farmer Kyle Marcum of Centralia, Mo., learned his family’s annual health premium would reach $15,000 for 2017, he dropped coverage for himself, his wife, Tina, and their daughter Megan, 15.

“I’m not working my tail to the bone to make money for doctors and insurance companies,” Marcum said. “We just hope and pray nothing major happens with our health.”

Marcum is not alone. Of 330 million Americans, approximately 28 million remained uninsured in 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That compares to about 48 million who were uninsured when the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also called Obamacare, was first adopted in 2010. Initially, individuals were required to have insurance or pay a penalty, but that mandate will be repealed in 2019. The scrapping of the requirement was part of a new tax law President Trump signed last December.

Fellow Centralia farmer Randy Ridgway, on the other hand, unfortunately knows firsthand the value of having health insurance. His wife, Angie, died in 2014 after a battle with breast cancer. She had health coverage through her job as a school teacher.

“My wife’s experience showed me it’s important to have health insurance,” Ridgway said. “If we didn’t have Angie’s insurance, it would have broke us. She fought cancer for nine years, and the medical bills would have totaled $3 to $4 million without insurance.”

Ridgway, a full-time farmer, was never on his wife’s plan—he purchased his insurance separately. At first, the ACA lowered his insurance costs compared to his previous plan but kept increasing in price until it became unaffordable. When his annual policy skyrocketed to $18,000 a few years ago, he sought alternatives. He now has a private short-term plan that lowers his family’s premium to $4,428. The plan covers Ridgway and his 23-year-old son, Grant, who farms with him.

“I’m now paying $369 per month for both of us,” Ridgway said. “It’s affordable.”

The ACA remains controversial, and it continues to shape insurance markets. Here’s how it works. You can go through a broker or obtain ACA coverage online at marketplace.gov. The federal government doesn’t provide the insurance—private insurance companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield offer the coverage. The government makes the platform and the rules that insurers must follow.

Depending on income, you may be eligible for federal subsidies or tax credits that lower costs.

“Farmers are often described as being land rich but cash poor,” said Shoshanah Inwood, a rural sociologist with Ohio State University who conducted a 2017 study of farmers and health insurance. “The ACA benefited some farmers because subsidies were based on income rather than assets like land. A lot of farmers got health insurance for the first time through the ACA.”

However, commercial farmers often generate too much income to qualify for subsidies, and without them, the insurance can be expensive. Also, the ACA requires you to predict next year’s income to determine your eligibility for a subsidy, and it’s difficult to forecast income that varies with weather and commodity prices.

“2018 might have been a good year to sign up,” Marcum said. “We’re in a disaster area due to a drought. We were already feeding hay to our cattle in August, when our pasture dried up. Our corn yield will probably drop in half over last year. And tariff threats have lowered the price of soybean futures by $2 a bushel.”  

Another problem farmers find with the ACA Marketplace is that often only one insurance provider offers coverage in rural counties. That includes Audrain County, where Marcum and Ridgway live. Long distances to health care providers can present further problems for rural residents, and doctors and hospitals are becoming more selective about plans they’ll accept.

That’s why many people, including farmers, are seeking private insurance coverage outside the ACA Marketplace. However, it’s often difficult to obtain coverage without belonging to a group. Most farmers are self-employed and don’t qualify for group coverage offered by employers.

Ridgway purchased his short-term health plan from Stan Cuba of Cuba Insurance Agency in Liberty, Mo. Cuba specializes in insurance for rural people in six states, including about 600 farmers.

“There’s a huge market for short-term health coverage in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri,” Cuba said. “This is a great option for people who don’t qualify for ACA subsidies and are in good health.”

As Cuba explains, a federal law passed during the Obama administration allows for short-term health insurance lasting 90 days. Missouri now allows short-term insurance to renew automatically for a year. Cuba said that the Trump administration is working toward allowing coverage to extend up to a year as in Missouri. However, after the year is up, policy-holders must answer questions about their health, and if they report a problem, the company may refuse coverage.

Ridgway’s National General Accident Health policy comes with an annual deductible of $5,000, which means generally, after that level is met, insurance covers some remaining expenses.   

Not everyone loves short-term plans. Sidney Watson, a St. Louis University law professor and health care expert, expresses caution.

“I worry that we’ll see a return to what happened before the Affordable Care Act,” she told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in an Aug. 2 article. “People will buy a short-term plan thinking it offers good quality coverage, and then be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills when they get pregnant or sick and find out their short-term plan doesn’t cover the care they need.”

Cuba, a broker for the ACA Marketplace, offers hope for ACA improvements in 2019.

“Overall, states in the Midwest will see much lower increases than in previous years,” he said. “In Missouri, companies like Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield and AmBetter are requesting significantly lower increases. In some cases, customers will see decreases. The market is stabilizing, and that works in favor of farmers and small business owners. There has never been a better time to explore health care options in the ACA.”

One of the benefits of the ACA, Cuba pointed out, is that coverage is guaranteed even if you have a pre-existing condition.

That’s one reason the Marcums said they took the risk of dropping their health insurance.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if I have a heart attack or if one of us gets cancer,” Marcum said. “But since the ACA can’t refuse coverage to anyone, I figure we can sign up during the year-end enrollment period if we need coverage.”

So far, going without health insurance has worked out, he said.

“When we tell doctors we don’t have health insurance, they drop the price of a visit from say $150 to $75,” Marcum said. On the other hand, he pointed out, Tina’s thyroid medication went from $45 a month to $75.

There are other options, Cuba said. Instead of insurance, some of his customers are enrolled in health care cost-sharing ministries.

“People are hearing about these Christian plans from friends and neighbors, and they’re flocking to it,” Cuba said. “Christian Medishare is huge in Missouri—I have 70 customers on it. The plans I work with pay well, and the administrators are friendly, knowledgeable and patient. I’ve heard no complaints.”

These plans are not insurance, Cuba explained. Participants don’t pay premiums—they pay a standard monthly share into a pool. For example, one of Cuba’s customers pays $560 a month in a monthly family share. Administrators provide funds to pay medical bills after they arise.

Still, some farmers delay purchasing health insurance until they turn 65, when they become eligible for federal Medicare coverage. With Medicare, you must continue to pay premiums and deductibles, but plans are generally more affordable than what is available to those under 65.  

In the health care debate, Americans disagree on solutions, and farm organizations reflect that divide.

“We hope to see America’s health care laws changed to provide more competition and bring costs down,” said Eric Bohl, director of public affairs and advocacy for the Missouri Farm Bureau. “Allowing farmers to band together and form their own insurance pools would go a long way toward sharing the risks inherent in farming. Top-down governmental control hasn’t brought down costs. We need more transparency and more options, not more restrictions and mandates.”

Missouri Farm Bureau recently began offering a member-only group health plan for small businesses, including farms, but you need at least two employees to qualify. Cuba Insurance Agency offers similar group health plans for small businesses. However, Inwood said forming farmer pools may prove difficult.

“The average age of farmers at 58.9 makes them subject to higher-cost ratings,” Inwood said. “This, along with farmers’ high risk of injury, will likely make insurance rates high in a farmer-only pool.”

No one can predict what will happen with health coverage—whether the ACA Marketplace will continue, or whether new options will arise for those who can’t find affordable solutions. Congress is considering options to include health coverage in the Farm Bill that expires at year-end 2018. Led by Texas, 20 states are launching legal challenges to the ACA.

In the meantime, Kyle Marcum said he isn’t optimistic about the future of health care for his family and fellow farmers.

“We may look at health coverage again for 2019,” he said, “but we’re waiting for the industry and the politics to settle down.”

For more information, visit the ACA Marketplace at healthcare.gov, or get Medicare info at Medicare.gov. Keep in mind that many health plans require you to make a decision by Dec. 15 for 2019 coverage.

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