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Former N.D. ag commissioner sees differences in Washington

MORGAN, Minn. -- Farm issues Roger Johnson faces in Washington, D.C. are not much different than he handled in North Dakota. But politics are an entirely different story. "The politics in Washington, D.C. are very broken," said Johnson, National ...

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President Roger Johnson of the National Farmers' Union speaks to a Farmfest audience near Morgan, Minn., Aug. 3, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

MORGAN, Minn. -- Farm issues Roger Johnson faces in Washington, D.C. are not much different than he handled in North Dakota.

But politics are an entirely different story.

"The politics in Washington, D.C. are very broken," said Johnson, National Farmers' Union president and former North Dakota agriculture commissioner. "It is a very dysfunctional place. It has been my biggest disappointment going out there, trying to run a major national farm organization faced with a Congress that just is not very functional anymore."

Johnson left his native North Dakota when he was elected Farmers' Union president in 2009. He was a third-generation Turtle Lake, N.D., farmer.

During a visit to southwest Minnesota's Farmfest agriculture show, where he was featured on a panel that discussed federal water issues, Johnson told Forum News Service about life in Washington, comparing it to his North Dakota roots.

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Like in Washington now, Republicans controlled the North Dakota House and Senate when he was ag commissioner.

"We got along pretty well," Johnson, a Democrat, recalled. "It was not a dysfunctional relationship. You come out to D.C. and it is a totally different situation."

However, he said, farmers are optimistic by nature. "We always live to plant the next crop, raise the next calf crop. You survive until the next election and then you do it again. Our members are more engaged than they ever have been."

Farmers' Union members, Johnson added, already are looking at how to improve federal farm laws, even though they are not due to be rewritten for two years. They are dissecting current law to see what needs changed and drawing up new ideas.

The same is going on in the other major farm organization, Farm Bureau.

While Farmers' Union tends to lean more Democratic and Farm Bureau Republican, the two groups agree on 70 percent to 80 percent of issues they face, Johnson said.

There is a good relationship among leaders of the two groups, he said.

Farm Bureau leaders agree, and Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said the groups find more in common all the time.

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"It is not our fathers' Farm Bureau," he said about more partisan differences in the past. "And I don't know if it is our fathers' Farmers' Union."

"There are a lot of ways we work together on a daily basis," Paap said, much like farmers themselves do. "Working together works."

Johnson said the two groups agree on the need for federal farm laws, but do not always agree on specifics.

One difference he pointed out is that Farmers' Union supports eliminating the estate tax on farms up to $6 million, but backs taxing larger estates. Farm Bureau tends to want to fully eliminate the estate tax.

Johnson took issue with some people who want to change how the farm bill is put together. There is a growing contingent in Washington calling for separating farm-related programs from nutrition spending, such as the program that used to be known as food stamps.

He agreed with U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who at Farmfest said that would be the death of farm legislation.

"You cannot pass legislation specific to farmers, who represent less than 2 percent of the population of this country, without urban support," Johnson said. "You just can't do it."

Fewer than 8 percent of U.S. House districts are considered rural, while more than half are solidly urban. The rest are a mixture.

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And with each census, urban residents make up a larger percentage of the country's population, giving them more House seats.

"We have always argued for safety net for farmers when times are bad," Johnson said. "That precise argument applies to the nutrition guidelines. Those policies in the nutrition programs are targeted to children who do not have much money, for families who are broke, for those who need a safety net."

Farmers who want to cut nutrition programs are "hypocritical" if they want to cut help for poor people while retaining aid for farmers in financial distress, he said.

With all the serious problems on his plate, what is difference that he most notices between North Dakota and Washington? "D.C. doesn't really have winter, but their summers are God-awful hot. ... I will take a North Dakota winter over a D.C. summer any year."

 

 

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