Missing the atmosphere of Minnesota Farmfest was pretty much the only thing that Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and Republican challenger Jason Lewis could agree on Tuesday, Aug. 4, during an online debate.

Minnesota's candidates for U.S. Senate got to partake in some verbal sparring in the first virtual political forum of this year's Farmfest. All of the political and educational forums are being held virtually.

“I miss the conversation, the corn ice cream, the pork chop on a stick," said Smith of the usual Farmfest festivities.

Lewis said he wished the debate could've been held like it was in previous years, in front of hundreds of farmers in Redwood County, Minn.

But the reminiscing ended when candidates gave their opening statements. Smith began by recapping her time in Congress in which she said she's boosted assistance to farmers and developed new trade relationships for the state's producers.

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"Minnesota farmers and producers make the food, fuel and fiber that make our lives work," said Smith, who's been endorsed by the Minnesota Farmers Union.

Smith said that farm operations are crucial to the Minnesota economy, and that's why she fought hard to be on the Senate Ag Committee. While on the committee, she's worked well with Republicans to get things done, she said.

"I have gone to bat for you and gotten results," she said. "To pass bipartisan bills, support rural co-ops, broadband, rural healthcare and pass bipartisan trade deals."

Lewis, who served a single term in Congress, began his opening address by saying he's visited around eight farms in the past year. He challenged Smith's record of success head-on by saying he's heard from farmers who need more support than what they've gotten.

He posed the question of whether Minnesota's ag industry was really better off with Smith's contributions.

"If you're better off than you were since my opponent got to Congress or sat on the Ag Committee, and the answer is no," he said.

Later on in the debate, Smith fired back at Lewis for his vote two years ago in opposition to a compromised farm bill.

"(Lewis) is the only member of the Minnesota delegation — Republican or Democrat — that voted against the farm bill,” said Smith.

If Lewis was actually an "advocate for agriculture," Smith asked, why then would he oppose something as vital to farmers as the farm bill.

In reply, Lewis said that he opposed the final 2018 farm bill only because he voted for a Republican-backed House farm bill that he thought was better.

The right relief for COVID-19

Smith stressed the importance of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which gave direct relief to farmers who faced price declines and extra costs from the pandemic. But it wasn't enough to get farmers out of the dark, she said.

Looking towards the next COVID-19 relief package, Smith said she is working now to ensure that turkey producers are included in the commodities eligible for CFAP, as they currently are not. She's focused on ethanol producers as well, who also have been overlooked by the program.

Lewis agreed with his opponent on the need to keep streamlining the current assistance programs but said that's only necessary if the state continues a "lockdown" approach during the pandemic.

"I had a hog farmer call me 15 minutes before a roundtable on ag in Freeborn County, saying he couldn't make it because he had to euthanize 1,000 hogs," said Lewis.

Lewis blamed the damaged markets and broken supply chain on the state's response to the coronavirus. He said the effect on the state's ag industry from the "overreaction on the lockdown" was "simply unforgivable".

Dropping restrictions due to the pandemic could reopen markets for farmers and allow processing plants to be fully functional again, said Lewis. He said that "getting the hog market back up and running again" would help resolve other deficient markets and preserve the 3,000 pork producers in the state.

Lewis applauded President Donald Trump's executive order to reopen meat processing plants like the facilities in Worthington, Minn., and Sioux Falls, S.D., which he said "butcher and process 20,000 hogs a day."

"I'm not talking just about opening them for kill sites, I'm talking about getting them fully functional so we can get livestock back on a sounder footing," said Lewis. "That will go through the entire agricultural market and help things."

Renewable fuels and climate change

The two sides have opposite outlooks when it comes to renewable fuels mandates.

Smith said she's worked hard to push back on the EPA's "secret refinery waivers", which she called "very damaging" to Minnesota's ethanol industry.

She said Lewis stands on the side of Trump's EPA.

"I just think that's a mistake, and it's not fair," she said of supporting the RFS mandate waivers. "It's hurting jobs and opportunity in Minnesota agriculture."

In response to what federal initiatives she would like to see implemented to address climate change, Smith said she's committed to a greener future for the country and Minnesota's ag industry.

"You don't have to tell Minnesota farmers about the realities of climate change. They see it, you see it in your flooded out fields and extreme weather," said Smith. "And leading on climate change means that we are leading on rural energy."

She said that adding solar and wind capacity is not only good for the environment but would generate revenue and cut long-term costs significantly. Smith is currently working on a bipartisan bill to research expanding wind energy storage.

Lewis said that Smith's green intentions fall in line with the other people "leading the charge" on climate change restrictions in the country, which he said are hindering ag operations.

Farmers rely on machines that run on "all sorts of energy", said Lewis, and "putting massive taxes in the name of climate change on agriculture" will not help.

Implying that Democrats were out of touch when it came to rural opinions on issues like climate change, Lewis recalled Gov. Tim Walz calling greater Minnesota nothing but "rocks and cows" years ago, and Michael Bloomberg saying anybody who puts seed in the ground can be a successful farmer. Those statements need to be disavowed, he said.