DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Here are how Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and his opponent, former Lt. Gov., Michelle Fischbach, compare on various ag policies.
Fischbach has said she’ll follow Trump’s lead on trade. She contends the president was making headway on rebalancing trade, prior to the COVID-19 effect. “China has been sticking it to the farmers for years,” she said. She said the president did make sure farmers were compensated for the retaliation.
Peterson said U.S./China policies prior to the trade war particularly benefited U.S. commodity producers. “They’re the only ones who benefitted from China, other than Walmart and the consumers,” he said. “It’s hard to put any spin on this that this is, somehow or another, a win for agriculture.”
Minnesota ag trade with China is 25% of its pre-trade war levels.
“Farmers do care about the country as a whole, and they understand we need to get the best deal we can, a fair deal from China,” Fischbach said. Fischbach said this is in part due to Chinese hog sickness and depopulation, and the COVID-19 effect.
Fischbach blames the pain not on the tariffs, but on the “retaliatory tariffs from China.” Peterson said the retaliation was predictable and that Republican should have known that and spoken up.
Peterson notes that U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has stated that China will not meet “Phase I” targets for purchasing U.S. farm goods. He acknowledges that “China is a bad actor” on trade. He voted against letting them into the World Trade Organization, and against letting them have “Most Favored Nation” status.
He said U.S. companies “sent their jobs to China,” making deals that give Chinese companies 51% ownership. They pay people $100 a month to replace U.S. jobs that were paying $5,000 to $6,000 a month. Meanwhile, China has gained competence in building everything from airplanes to computers to telephones.
“What happened was that 300 million people that farmed in China, went to town to take these jobs. And who filled that market? We (U.S. farmers) did.” Trump “tapped into that pain” of job loss, Peterson said.
Peterson says it’s a problem that Congress has about $5 billion in traditional programs and crop insurance, while the federal government in the Trump era has handed out $46 billion in ad hoc payments for trade and COVID-19 related relief.
Fischbach said she’ll be strong on listening to farm constituents and ensuring new farmers get a chance and that existing farmers can pass on operations. She said it’s important to look into the future of farming over a five or 10-year period. She said she’ll work to make sure “rural communities are thriving.”
She thinks the farm bill should be more about farming than nutrition programs. She understands that keeping nutrition programs part of the farm bill is what gets it passed. “I would have to see what the makeup of the U.S. Congress is to see whether or not you need those (nutrition programs) to pass.” But she added, “It’s about making sure we’re feeding America, too.”
Peterson said Congress in the 1990s and 2000s had worked toward getting farmers off of ad hoc support, instead focusing on things like crop insurance. “Now, we’re kind of back into it,” he said.
With Peterson as chairman, he said there will be no return to historical Democratic policies of supply management, or focus payments only on small farmers. He is in favor of promoting trade in agricultural products. He says it’s a mistake to depend on exports for a “safety net” for farmers. “The alternative is to have a decent floor under prices,” he said. He prefers the Price Loss Coverage (PLC), which would set a “target price floor under prices,” would raise prices higher than the $3.40 per bushel for corn and $8.40 for soybeans.
Fischbach says that the farm bill must be rewritten by Sept. 30, 2023, and that it’s important to start early and “learn what’s important to the farmers." She said she’s started an ag advisory committee.
Peterson said he knows better what's important and will run the farm bill like he’s done before. He’ll call field hearings next summer “as we always do” and will hold hearings in Washington. He’ll develop the bill at the sub-committee level.
Regarding stimulus packages related to COVID-19, Peterson supports money for depopulating hogs and turkeys, for helping with the packing plants, for helping ethanol — things that "are at a crisis right now.” He said the bill should focus on things in crisis, and where money can “actually help.” He said those ag provisions are likely to be the final package.”
Fischbach said she has supported ethanol in the Minnesota Senate, ensuring that farmers have a market for their corn crop. She said the small refinery exemptions have been a problem but that federal courts have found on the biofuels side of the issue.
Peterson was there when the Renewable Fuel Standard was passed, and said that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “helped get it done.” He said the RFS calls for 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol being blended into vehicle fuel. “We’re at 12.5 billion gallons,” he said. He opposed exemptions but said they were supposed to have been used for small refineries or for emergencies, and that changed in 2016 under the Trump administration.
The Trump administration has declined to explain the basis for exemptions, so Peterson included in the Heroes Act act a requirement that exemptions be justified publicly. Peterson said Republican senators, including Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, are “in trouble” because of how the administration has handled the exemptions and said the administration is unspecific and won’t come until after the election.
Fischbach supports Trump administration favors E15 (15% ethanol blend) polices. Peterson said the infrastructure —pumps — must be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency before it can have any benefit. He called the effect “marginal” but “not any kind of solution.”
Trump had told the EPA to reject the small refinery exemption to the RFS.
Peterson says he was instrumental in creating the “best safety net in the country,” he said.
Peterson credits the American Farm Bureau Federation for development of a dairy revenue policy. “Dairy farmers have the best safety net of any farmers now, in the country,” he said.
Dairies of fewer than 220 cows “cannot lose money” if they use the current safety net program. Those producers only make 14% of the milk, so they can’t oversupply the market. Larger producers are covered by a crop insurance system that works.
The Minnesota Milk Producers Association doesn’t endorse candidates, but its board in September unanimously voted to name Peterson a “legislator of the year” award, which they’ve presented since 2002.
The award typically goes to a state legislator but Peterson earned it for past work in “decades before, but especially in 2020,” and the association does not endorse candidates. Fischbach never received this recognition and offers no specific dairy policy suggestions.
“We work at the federal level some, but normally let our co-ops and processors manage it more,” said Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association.
Pat Lunemann, 61,of Clarissa, Minn., from Todd County, is the third-generation on a farm that milks 850 dairy cows. Lunemann was on the Minnesota Milk board for 18 years, including nine as chairman, and was chairman of Minnesota Agri-Growth. He said the organization doesn’t always agree with Peterson but said the current safety net — especially for smaller farmers — is much higher and more effective. “Stopping short of endorsing anyone, we definitely realize that Collin is a friend to the dairy industry.”
Both Peterson and Fischbach are in favor of reigning in over-regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“Those people are out of control. They’re out there, shutting off drainage to people’s farms, causing roads to be washed out,” Peterson said. Even with his position, he said he’s met with USFWS top officials twice and gotten “nothing out of it, so far.” He opposes USFWS taking permanent easements — effectively “buying land." He would limit federal easements to 30 years.
Peterson advertisements attack Fischbach for supporting buffer zones around lakes and streams, an issue that rankled farmers because they had little input early-on.
Fischbach works to tie Peterson to left-leaning Democrats and the “Green New Deal,” which includes anti-fossil fuel provisions. Among other things, she says it will hurt ethanol. Peterson scoffs that he also opposes the Green New Deal and said it is “dead as a doornail, so that’s a debate we don’t need to have.”
Peterson has helped design sugar policies that protect three sugar beet cooperatives in the Seventh District —American Crystal Sugar Co., with its five plants in central and the northern Red River Valley; Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative at Renville, Minn.,; and Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative of Wahpeton, N.D. He knows them inside-out.
The co-ops themselves don’t endorse candidates, but sugar allies spearheaded the creation of a Super-PAC, to raise money for Peterson.
Peterson and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., chairman of the agricultural subcommittee for the Senate Appropriations Committee, were able to help the co-ops through the disastrous 2019 crop. “If we wouldn’t have gotten in there and gotten them that bailout, they would have been in significant trouble,” Peterson said. “The two of us were able to go to USDA and get this done. You’re not going to have a freshman of either party that’s going to be able to even be at the table, be in the room.” A freshman from the minority party is “completely irrelevant” in leading policy.
If Peterson is defeated, and Democrats control the House, the next in seniority among ag committee Democrats is Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., representing suburban Atlanta, home of Coca Cola. Scott is another member of the Blue Dog Coalition. “The last serious attempt we had to get rid of the sugar program? David Scott authored it,” Peterson said. “So what does that tell you?”
COVID-19 has exposed problems in the meat supply chain. Peterson wants to spend two years fixing that. “We need to give Americans capital to be interested in owning the meat processing business. Because they haven’t been interested and that’s why they’ve been sold to foreigners.”
Smithfield Foods is owned by the Chinese. JBS is the biggest processor in the United States, owned by Brazilians. “They thought it was a good buy,” Peterson said. He and Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., are promoting a bill that would encourage American-owned federally-inspected processing plants. The plants would be 1,000 head a day, as opposed to the 5,000 head a day being done at Smithfield in Sioux Falls.
Fischbach, too, supports “smaller and more processors” available to livestock producers, and less dependent on the few that they have.