FarmFest on Tuesday served as a usual magnet for political candidates posing as friends of agriculture, with office seekers from both parties saying they know what ails farmers and what it takes to fix it.
As they walked the sprawling grounds, eyeing giant combines and filling plastic buckets with branded giveaways, farmers at the annual show traded tales of the scarcity of rain as their crops bake in oppressive temperatures this summer.
They also bemoaned the high cost of basic necessities — fuel for their tractors, fertilizer for their crops and feed for their livestock — and listened as politicians offered their plans to fight inflation.
“I don’t think Washington wants to do much. I think there’s a lot of money going under the table from the oil industry,” said Bruce Olson, who sees himself as centrist and on the lookout for good candidates rather than the party they come from.
Olson grows corn, beans and alfalfa on a 900-acre farm near Red Wing, Minnesota. He and a few farmer friends sat through some of the candidate discussions and took away the following:
“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.
Between cornfields and country lanes, the event is sponsored by farming groups, equipment vendors, seed companies and others. And this election year, it offered some of the first side-by-side views of candidates for Congress of the Year.
The congress forum of the 1st district should be the big attraction of the day. That’s in part because of a two-pronged election that will send someone to Washington next week to replace the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn, a GOP Rep. who died this winter.
The special election is between Republican candidate Brad Finstad, a farmer and former state legislator, and DFLer Jeffrey Ettinger, former CEO of Hormel. The same two are battling for their party’s nominations for the November elections that will decide who will take the seat in the next term.
Ettinger said goodbye at the last minute after testing positive for COVID-19. Finstad shared a stage with three other candidates, including GOP state assemblyman Jeremy Munson. Finstad narrowly beat Munson in a special election primary, and Munson still pushed for the regular primary in August.
The two Republicans sounded similar on farm policies — proper sizing regulations, allowing adequate immigrant visas to meet farm labor needs, and reducing inheritance taxes that may pose challenges to sustaining some family farms.
But they’re split over what kind of lawmaker the county needs.
Finstad stressed that he grew up on a farm and said he wasn’t looking for attention.
“We have a lot of people in government right now who love punching each other in the face. They love naming names. They love to scream. They love to lie, but they get nowhere. And as a farmer and as a problem solver, I’m telling you right now that there’s something I want to get done,” Finstad said from the stage in a barn where massive fan blades offered the only relief from a damp blanket. “We owe it to our children”
Munson said he also has first-hand farming experience. But he said there were two sides to the call for compromise.
“We have to do better. That means less government, that means less regulation for you,” Munson concluded. “I am a fiscal conservative. I follow the constitution. We need change in Washington, not these compromise laws that have greatly enlarged government and left us $30 trillion in debt. That is not right.”
It was a mostly quiet forum punctuated by a few moments of hilarity. Laughter erupted in the half-filled hall as DFL primary candidate James Rainwater admitted he wasn’t in his element.
“I’m not trying to blow smoke down your pants or sunshine anywhere,” Rainwater said. “But obviously I know less about farming than everyone else up here. But I ate more farm produce than anyone else up here.”
Later, four incumbents – DFL player Angie Craig and Republicans Tom Emmer, Michelle Fischbach and Pete Stauber – and five of their challengers shared the stage.
Craig promoted their efforts to boost ethanol, boost road construction funding, and raise money to expand broadband in the Minnesota metro area. And she emphasized where she worked with Republicans and urged forum participants to study her records.
“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 did,” Craig said.
Her Republican opponent, Tyler Kistner, said he will be part of a review of President Joe Biden’s administration.
“Which pledges the future of my children, the future of your children, and our future generations,” Kistner said. “So we need to win back Congress and have a Republican-controlled Congress that fights inflation and starts putting American farmers and American families and households first.”
Their 2nd Precinct race is expected to be one of the most expensive and competitive in the country.
Emmer, who is helping to lead the Republicans’ national effort to win back the House of Representatives, used his speaking opportunities to rail against the agenda of the Democrats, who currently control Washington, blaming inflation and high gas prices.
“Take care of the spending, the runaway spending, and get ready because they’re going to make another three-quarters of a trillion dollars. Ladies and gentlemen, 5.3 percent of what you plan to spend on this reconciliation pig next week will go to agriculture. I think you need to focus on the things that matter most right now and that affect every farming and middle-class family in this country.”
DFL member Jennifer Schultz, a state congresswoman opposite Stauber in northern Minnesota, said money in bills often slandered by Republicans has been donated to charities, including disease prevention in livestock and other food safety .
“People are honestly sick of the division. They’re sick of people fighting,” Schultz said. “They just want their elected representative to get things done and I really believe that’s possible.”
Another big forum is scheduled for Wednesday when DFL Gov. Tim Walz has his first showdown with presumptive Republican nominee Scott Jensen.
On Tuesday, Jensen laid out a plan that he said would speed up approval, reduce fees and take other steps to shore up agriculture and meat production.
Jensen said he would eliminate a tax on fertilizers and find other ways to pay for the agricultural research it funds. He said he would bring more geographic diversity to agency commissioners’ offices and put more trust in farmers to look out for the environment.
“I grew up in Sleepy Eye,” Jensen said. “You know which peasants don’t need help, especially from the arrogant townspeople. They guard the land. They live here.”
Pressed for the term “arrogant townspeople,” the Chaska doctor and former state deputy said he hears from farmers who are frustrated by the idea that they won’t take care of natural resources unless told to do so.