WEST FARGO, North Dakota — Collin Peterson is pretty sure he wasn't meant for the politics of today.

The former House Ag Committee chair, who lost his bid for a 16th term representing Minnesota's District 7 in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2020 to Rep. Michelle Fischbach, talked quite a bit during a session at the Big Iron Farm Show on Tuesday, Sept. 14, about how he misses the old days in Congress, where there was more bipartisanship and more people with at least some degree of agriculture knowledge. The longtime Democrat said he doesn't fit in there anymore.

"I'm better off being out of there," he said. "I'm not sure you're better off."

But that doesn't mean he's done with politics or with agriculture. He and former USDA Undersecretary Bill Northey have been regular fixtures at Upper Midwest farm shows this summer and at Big Iron talked about their plans to amplify the voices of Midwest agribusinesses.

From left, Don Wick of Red River Farm Network, former Rep. Collin Peterson and former USDA Undersecretary Bill Northey talked about ag policy and the next steps for Peterson and Northey during the Big Iron Farm Show on Sept. 14, 2021.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
From left, Don Wick of Red River Farm Network, former Rep. Collin Peterson and former USDA Undersecretary Bill Northey talked about ag policy and the next steps for Peterson and Northey during the Big Iron Farm Show on Sept. 14, 2021. Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
Peterson recalled the successful work of the Southwest Council on Agribusiness and the Delta Council in working with Congress and administration officials to cut through the noise and speak up with one unified voice for a region, speaking from a broader perspective than individual commodity or interest groups. Those efforts meant that southern agriculture interests, like peanut and cotton lobbies, have "eaten our lunch," Peterson said.

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He and Northey, a former Iowa agriculture commissioner, want to put their long experience in ag policy to work for ag in their own region by forming the Midwest Council on Agriculture, they said.

Former Rep. Collin Peterson said that he no longer feels like he fits in Washington, D.C., but he still believes he has something to offer in the field of ag policy. Photo taken Sept. 14, 2021, at Big Iron Farm Show.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
Former Rep. Collin Peterson said that he no longer feels like he fits in Washington, D.C., but he still believes he has something to offer in the field of ag policy. Photo taken Sept. 14, 2021, at Big Iron Farm Show. Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
"We bring something to the table," Peterson said.

According to Minnesota Secretary of State records, Peterson registered the Midwest Council on Agriculture as a nonprofit corporation in Minnesota in June. The base of the organization, the pair explained, will be agribusinesses, bankers, farm credit unions, machinery dealers, crop insurance agencies, seed dealers and large-scale farmers. The effort will encompass Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Commodity groups also may be involved. Peterson likened it to the National Federation of Independent Business but for Midwest agriculture and said it could sort through what's important and deliver that message to Congress.

"We are a huge economic engine in this part of the country," Peterson said.

Former USDA Undersecretary Bill Northey discussed farm policy at the Big Iron Farm Show on Sept. 14, 2021.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
Former USDA Undersecretary Bill Northey discussed farm policy at the Big Iron Farm Show on Sept. 14, 2021. Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
The far-ranging conversation, led by Don Wick of Red River Farm Network, had Peterson and Northey taking on numerous ag industry issues:

  • Stepped up basis: Peterson said he and other former Democratic lawmakers from farm states had urged their fellow colleagues to take a step back from stepped-up basis. That has been dropped from the budget reconciliation bill, and both Peterson and Northey said it could have had devastating effects on family farms.
  • Budget reconciliation: Peterson said the $3 trillion budget reconciliation bill is too massive. Some things, he said, are important to address, including childcare and employment leave. But he guessed that a $3 trillion bill will not be the ultimate bill that passes and that the current bill is "doing stuff that doesn't have to be done." Northey said there's little chance that members of Congress can objectively look at every piece of a bill that size.
  • Ag-related political nominations: The Biden administration has a lot of ag-related positions left to fill, but Northey said the Trump administration in which he served also was slow. "I don't know what normal is," he said.
  • Meat processing: Both Peterson and Northey expressed concerns about the issues facing livestock producers and the lack of competition in the meat processing issue. Peterson outlined a continuing problem: "I don't think people in American want to be in this business." He said he does not have a lot of confidence in attempts to solve the meat packing problem through anti-trust actions, but he is in favor of putting more money into small processors. But he said $500 million may not be enough and said something like $50 billion would get more done.
  • Carbon markets: Neither Peterson or Northey is sure how current programs aimed at sequestering carbon through farm practices will work. Both the price of carbon and exactly how much carbon various acts sequester remain unknown, they said. Peterson said he is afraid Congress will "spend a whole bunch of money and not accomplish a damn thing." But Northey said he thinks the most successful efforts will come through businesses seeking out producers using sustainable practices.
  • Water policy: Both Peterson and Northey believe the waters that the federal government is responsible for protecting are navigable waters, not every wetland or pothole.
  • Conservation: Peterson was a big proponent of the Conservation Reserve Program in his time in Congress, and he and Northey both said it's tough to get CRP payment rates right. He said it's good and natural that not as many acres go into CRP when crop prices are high, but he said the USDA should strive to get the 40 million acres of land in the country that aren't suitable for farming into the program. "Take the land that shouldn't be farmed out and put it in CRP," Peterson said. "Take the land that should be farmed out of CRP." Programs that get more cattle onto CRP acres would be helpful, Peterson added.