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Candidate Q&A: MN House District 27B

Author’s note: This is a continuation of the Herald’s candidate Q&A features and the fourth such feature with State Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-27B) and challenger Patricia Mueller (R). In this feature, the candidates were asked questions about agriculture. Here are their responses.

1. How would you rate the overall state of agriculture in District 27B?

Patrica Mueller

Mueller: Agriculture is the backbone of our local economy, and our hardworking farmers are central to its success. Many farms have been operating in our area for generations, and Minnesota’s death tax requires the latest generation of farmers to choose between selling half the farm to pay the tax or selling the entire farm and ending their family’s tradition. I have hosted two listening sessions with farmers to hear about what they need to run their farms effectively.  Being overregulated, overtaxed and overpriced on health care were central to the feedback I received.

Many of the mandates that come from the government hurt smaller family farms, which are the lifeblood of our area. They need to have the freedom to operate their farm as they see fit and to compete in the local economy without unnecessary restrictions.

Health care is expensive and limited. Many farmers are going without health insurance, which only adds financial risk to their already high risk, low margin business. I support legislation allowing for farm coops to set up their own health insurance and will work to expand more patient-centric options for health insurance for Minneostans. This is the type of out of the box thinking that we need rather than a government-mandated, one size fits all solution.

Poppe: The overall state of agriculture this year seems to be better than it has been in years. For crop farmers, the weather has been right from the planting season in the spring to harvest time now. Getting into the fields and getting good yields along with some positive trade news and higher commodity prices is a welcome relief.

Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-27B)

For animal agriculture, this spring was pretty rough for many. When the packing plants shut down in southwestern Minnesota and Iowa, many farmers had to destroy perfectly healthy, market-weight animals. It was a devastating blow as they had no other choice. Fortunately, since many actions have been taken to reduce the spread of the virus in close working conditions at packing plants and on farms, things are mostly back to pre-COVID days.

Our dairy farmers continue to face the challenges of high costs and lower prices. The temporary closing of restaurants and schools left many with no outlet for their products.

2. How would you address concerns over recent events (such as the trade war and coronavirus pandemic) that have influenced food prices?

Mueller: The governor’s reaction to COVID-19 shows how important input from the legislature is on all of these decisions. Our economy runs on a lean supply chain with just-in-time delivery. Even the slightest disruption can cause shortages or spikes in pricing. The disruption at processing facilities caused our pork and beef producers to eliminate hundreds of thousands of livestock. Minnesota laws and regulations prevented many economical solutions to mitigate these losses. Price spikes did not benefit the farmers. Many dairy farmers were unable to sell their milk due to the packaging lines for pint size (schools) and bulk (restaurants) containers having no demand because of the closures mandated by the governor. Impacts from these mandates should have been discussed through collaboration with the legislature. Unilateral decisions made by one person have been proven to be reckless. Government should always use the least restrictive means of regulation.

Our trade policy needed to be addressed and was done so at the federal level. It was a bumpy road for Minnesota farmers, miners, and manufacturers and we are now in a much better place than four years ago. My role as a state representative will be to partner with our congressman and U.S. senators to ensure concerns of our district are being communicated to the federal level.

Poppe: Farmers are definitely in this business because they love the experience of farming and being able to tend the land and care for animals. Every year in farming is likely to see them face risks, some avoidable and many beyond their control. For example, they cannot do anything about the weather, but they can do some things to improve the soil moisture on their land. They can access markets across the world and many have been able to minimize their risk by diversifying. There is a much greater awareness for the need for expanding rural broadband and more farmers are considering alternative crops, raising different animals, or using regenerative farming practices.

When the federal government imposes tariffs, farmers are caught in the crossfire. While this has been a most challenging year with much uncertainty, some positive things are happening. More consumers are getting educated about where food comes from and have made more connections with local food suppliers. People take notice when grocery shelves are bare. Unfortunately, we still have a lot of hungry people in this state. By supplying food to Second Harvest Heartland and area food shelves instead of supplying schools and restaurants, many vegetable, fruit and small animal farmers kept neighbors and friends fed. The state was able to provide some funds to help reimburse the farmers for those contributions.

3. How would you address mental health concerns for farmers struggling to maintain their businesses during this time?

Mueller: Farmers have an extraordinary amount of pressure as they work the land. Not only do they battle the weather, but also battle a tax and regulatory burden that farmers just a few miles away in Iowa do not face. During debate in the House Ag Committee, the gentleman who runs the ag mental health program was asked what was the central cause of mental health concerns for farmers. His answer was simple: “Taxes and regulations.” Unlike other businesses that have moved to neighboring states, farmers cannot move their land.

I support mental health grants for farmers, but we need to address the cause, not just the cure.  The State passed a law which changed the schedule 179 accelerated depreciation and this triggered enormous bills to be sent to farmers from the Minnesota Department of Revenue. If a farmer receives an $80,000 tax bill, how does that bode for his or her mental state?

Farm children are growing up watching their parents struggle with Obamacare, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Natural Resources, the Board of Water Soil and Resources, and the worst tax and regulations in the Midwest, which means they will be less likely to become farmers. We have an opportunity to correct this by supporting the freedom to farm and restoring the state government’s respect for farmers.

Poppe: Mental health and farm safety are high priorities for me. As a former counselor, I am keenly aware how circumstances can impact a person’s well-being. The past six or so years of low prices, bad weather and reduced markets due to tariffs all took their toll. Dairy farmers were spending more daily than they were taking in weekly. No business can survive when the price received doesn’t match or exceed the costs incurred.

While we cannot do anything about the weather, we can do something to increase the resources available to farmers. I am pleased to report that under my leadership, the Ag Committee and full legislature doubled  the number of mental health therapists accessible at no cost to farmers. We increased the number of farm advocates who work with farmers who may be transitioning out of or into farming, or need help speaking with a banker or readjusting a loan payment. The Minnesota Department of Ag, in cooperation with others, including Farm Business Management instructors at our colleges of Minnesota State, has developed hotlines and training modules on how to deal with stress and anxiety around farming. The University of Minnesota also has stepped up to do more training in this area. Additionally, this past year we created a grant program for farmers to have access to funds to improve access to safety equipment on their farms.

4. Do you believe any current state mandates or regulations on agriculture have negatively affected farmers?

Mueller: It is important to listen to the people who are on the ground doing the work. Nearly every regulation the State passes on agriculture removes choice. The nitrogen rule, which prohibits fall application of fertilizer in certain regions, has removed an important option for some. Farmers were already moving to spring applied or side dressed liquid nitrogen due to economics. No one wants to lose nitrogen, but taking away choice increases risk and stress on farmers. Government should follow the innovation of farmers and not place mandates where they are unnecessary.

Our area was about 90 percent in compliance with the buffer strip rule when the law passed. It was unnecessary, especially where land runs uphill to a county ditch. Water doesn’t run uphill. Farmers operate on a razor thin margin and taking 1-2 percent of their land without compensation was unjust.

The ditch mowing moratorium hurt livestock producers. It also creates a danger on the roadways for motorcyclists and motorists alike as it blocks seeing animals about to cross traffic. Since the nutritional value of hay is diminished after August, many farmers will not cut this, which they did for free. Now the State must pay people to mow the ditches, shifting this cost to taxpayers.

Poppe: Regulations are to be expected in any business or service provided to customers or consumers. When something bad happens to someone, often the reaction is to create a law to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Sometimes that is necessary. Sometimes the law or policy change is for the “greater good.” We need to be mindful of the consequences when  changes are made.

Perhaps there are other ways to accomplish the same outcome. Farm Safety is a good example. Last year, Minnesota led the nation in farm deaths. These were horrific situations and  many could have been avoided. Safety has to always be considered, but if you have done something one way 50 times with no harm, it becomes easier to repeat it and maybe the 51st time it doesn’t go as well. Our Ag Committee recommended a grant program and education pieces to help farmers to increase awareness.

As far as current regulations negatively affecting farmers, one policy that comes to mind is the buffer law under Gov. Mark Dayton. Although this has been successfully implemented throughout the state, there remains frustration that land was taken out of production with no compensation or other remedy. I would like to see that changed. Our farmers deserve to receive some benefit for the alternative use of their property.

5. Anything else you want to add?

Mueller: During my time of campaigning, the one message that I heard loud and clear was, “I want to be heard!” Farmers value their faith, their family and their country. They are fearful of extreme progressive legislation, including environmental legislation like the Minnesota Green New Deal.

As an educator, I know how frustrating it is to have a government official dictate how I need to do my job with little knowledge and little input. This is what I heard from farmers. They respect the land and want what is best for their crops and animals. Our local farmers are vital to our local economy. It is important to listen to them and give them the freedom to share with local representatives how they can best be served. I am offering unique representation, which means understanding that our area needs are different from the metro and standing up for our rural values.

Poppe: Agriculture is a very diverse  enterprise. Farming is an established way of life, especially in southern Minnesota, and our small and big businesses all depend on our farmers doing well.  I am proud to have earned the Political Action Committee endorsement of both the MN Farm Bureau Federation and the MN Farmers Union. I currently serve as Chair of the Ag and Food Finance and Policy Division in the Minnesota House. I am in the right place to continue to advocate for our farmers, ranchers, grocers and producers.