By Brian Bakst
FarmFest served as its usual magnet Tuesday for political candidates casting themselves as friends of agriculture, with office seekers of both parties saying they know what ails farmers and what it might take to fix it.
As they walked the sprawling grounds eyeing up giant combines and filling plastic buckets full of branded giveaways, farmers at the annual exposition traded stories about the scarcity of rain as their crops bake in sweltering temperatures this summer.
They also lamented the high cost of essentials — fuel for their tractors, fertilizer for their crops and feed for livestock — and listened as politicians offered their plans to attack inflation.
“I don’t think there’s a lot Washington wants to do. I think there’s a whole lot of money that comes under the table from the petroleum industry,” said Bruce Olson, who considers himself in the political middle on the lookout for good candidates rather than the party they’re from.
Olson grows corn, beans and alfalfa on a 900-acre farm around Red Wing, Minn. He and a couple farming buddies sat through some of the candidate discussions and had this takeaway:
“They know what we need, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to do anything about it,” Olson said of the politicians on stage.
The event tucked between cornfields and country roads is sponsored by farm groups, equipment dealers, seed companies and others. And in this election year, it offered some of the year’s first side-by-side views of candidates for Congress.
The 1st District Congressional Forum was supposed to be the day’s big draw. That’s in part because of a two-track election that will send somebody new to Washington next week to replace the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn, a GOP lawmaker who died this winter.
The special election is between Republican nominee Brad Finstad, a farmer and former state legislator, and DFLer Jeffrey Ettinger, the former Hormel CEO. The same two are angling for their party’s nominations for the November election that will decide who holds the seat in the next term.
Ettinger bowed out at the last minute after testing positive for COVID-19. Finstad shared a stage with three other candidates, including GOP state Rep. Jeremy Munson. Finstad narrowly beat Munson in a special election primary and Munson pressed ahead to the regular August primary nonetheless.
The two Republicans sounded similar on agriculture policy — right-sizing regulations, allowing reasonable immigrant visas to address farm workforce needs and slicing inheritance taxes that can pose challenges for maintaining some family farms.
But they split on what kind of lawmaker the district needs.
Finstad stressed his raised-on-a-farm credentials and said he’s not out for attention.
“We have a lot of folks in government right now that love to punch each other in the face. They love to call names. They love to scream. They love to lie, but they don’t get anything done. And as a farmer and as a problem solver, I’m telling you right now that I want to get something done,” Finstad said from the stage inside a barn building where massive fan blades offered the only relief from a blanket of humidity. “We owe it to our kids.”
Munson said he’s got first-hand farm experience, too. But he said there are two sides to the call for compromise.
“We need to do better. That means less government, that means less regulations on you,” Munson said in closing remarks. “I’m a fiscal conservative. I follow the Constitution. We need change in Washington, not these compromise bills that have grown government significantly and put us $30 trillion in debt. That’s not right.”
It was a mostly sedate forum, punctuated by a few moments of levity. Laughter spread through the half-filled room when DFL primary candidate James Rainwater confessed he was out of his element.
“I’m not going to try to blow smoke up your pants or sunshine somewhere,” Rainwater said. “But obviously, I know less about farming than anybody up here. But I’ve eaten more farm products than anybody up here.”
Later, four incumbents — DFLer Angie Craig and Republicans Tom Emmer, Michelle Fischbach and Pete Stauber — and five of their challengers shared the stage.
Craig touted her efforts to bolster ethanol, boost road construction funding and get money for broadband internet expansion in greater Minnesota. And she stressed where she’s worked with Republicans, urging the forum’s attendees to study her record.
“I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to do as a member of Congress, I’m going to tell you what I’ve done,” Craig said.
Her Republican opponent, Tyler Kistner, said he’d be part of a check on President Joe Biden’s administration.
“Which is mortgaging my children’s future, your children’s future and mortgaging our future generations,” Kistner said. “So we need to win back Congress and have a Republican-controlled Congress that is going to combat inflation and start putting American farmers and American families and households first.”
Their 2nd District race is expected to be one of the most expensive and competitive in the country.
Emmer, who is helping lead the national effort of Republicans to retake the House, used his speaking opportunities to rail against the agenda of Democrats who currently control Washington, blaming them for inflation and high gas prices.
“Address the spending, the out-of-control spending and get ready because they’re going to do another three-quarters of a trillion dollars. Ladies and gentleman, 5.3 percent of what they’re proposing to spend in this reconciliation pig next week goes to ag. I think you’ve got to focus on the things that are most important right now, affecting every ag family and every middle-class family across this country.”
DFLer Jennifer Schultz, a state legislator facing Stauber in northern Minnesota, said money in bills often disparaged by Republicans has gone to worthy causes, including disease prevention in livestock and other food-supply security.
“People frankly, they’re sick of divisiveness. They’re sick of people fighting,” Schultz said. ”They just want their elected representative to get things done and I truly believe that’s possible.”
Another big forum is set for Wednesday, when DFL Gov. Tim Walz has his first showdown with presumed Republican nominee Scott Jensen.
On Tuesday Jensen laid out a plan he said would speed up permitting, reduce fees and make other moves to prop up farming and meat production.
Jensen said he’d eliminate a tax on fertilizer and find other ways to pay for the agriculture research it funds. He said he’d add more geographic diversity to agency commissioner posts, and that he’d put more trust in farmers to watch out for the environment.
“I grew up in Sleepy Eye,” Jensen said. “You know what farmers don’t need help, particularly from the arrogant urbanites. They’re stewarding the land. They live here.”
Pressed on the term “arrogant urbanites,” the Chaska physician and former state legislator said he hears from farmers who are frustrated by the notion they won’t take care of natural resources unless ordered to do so.