Candidate Q&A: Minnesota Senate District 27
By Michael Stoll, Austin Daily Herald
Author’s note: As the November election approaches, the Tribune will run features over the coming months featuring candidates for various offices addressing questions about specific issues that affect citizens of Freeborn County and the surrounding areas. For this feature, questions were submitted to State Sen. Dan Sparks (DFL-27) and challenger Gene Dornink (R) regarding agriculture in the district.
Q: How would you rate the overall state of agriculture in District 27?
Dan Sparks: It’s a very tough time to be in agriculture. Even before the pandemic, farmers faced low commodity prices, tariffs and extreme weather that tested them financially, mentally and emotionally. The pandemic added insult to injury as food processors have not been able to handle the same volume that they could before, which has left many farmers with animals or products they don’t know what to do with.
At the legislature we have taken a number of measures aimed at aiding our agriculture economy through these difficult times, although the demand for help is unfortunately too great to meet all the existing needs. Regardless, I’m fully committed to continuing my work to address the problems facing our farmers and food processors. We’ve got to do everything we can to support them and see to it that they overcome these tremendous challenges.
Gene Dornink: I think the overall state of ag in Senate District 27 and in Minnesota is not great right now. I think our farmers are the most talented, hardworking farmers in the world, but the markets have been unstable, ethanol plants are idle and exports are poor. We need to do everything to help our farmers as they are the backbone of America and have a major effect on our rural economy and families.
Our governor and state senator ignored the emergency of these issues. As our livestock situation continued to be devastated, they delayed and delayed, not realizing that there are long term consequences for farmers that were caused by not getting our packing plants running as soon as possible. Farmers were slaughtering their livestock because the packing plants were shutting down, resulting in no animals to feed, which meant less of a demand for the corn and soybean market.
Q: How would you address concerns over recent events (such as the trade war and the pandemic) that have influenced food prices?
Sparks: To address these concerns, it’s key to think about this from a few different angles. The legislature replenished funding for the Rural Finance Authority with $50 million this year, which offers a variety of low or zero-interest loans to farmers. While loans of course aren’t always ideal, this gives farmers with financial difficulties more options and flexibility in the current economic conditions.
With the pandemic, we certainly need to do all we can to keep food processing workers healthy and safe. Keeping plants from temporarily shutting down or seriously decreasing processing capacity is critical. Processing capacity did decrease due to the pandemic, and we responded with grants to independent meat and poultry processors to help make up for the lost capacity. We also approved grants to retail food handlers to ensure they have personal protective equipment and safe facilities.
When farmers have trouble in the traditional marketplace, we ought to look at other ways that they can sell their product. In this regard, the Legislature allocated money to food shelves to purchase surplus products from Minnesota farmers. This helps ensure workers who were laid off and their families can still put food on their table while helping our farmers.
Dornink: First and foremost, the pandemic is something no one could have expected. But that being said, it was our failed leadership in Minneapolis/St. Paul under Gov. Walz and Sen. Sparks that led to the euthanizing of pigs. Why did Gov. Walz spend almost $7 million on a morgue? That money could have been distributed in grants to help local farmers and used to help our packing plants remain open through this crisis.
I agree we had to do something about our unfair trade situation. With new agreements with Mexico and Canada, we now have a better trade situation. We also made an agreement with China that would have China buying a great deal of ag products. My worry now for farm prices is that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing poor relations with China. Will they fulfill the agreement? We don’t know.
Q: How would you address mental health concerns for farmers struggling to maintain their businesses during this time?
Sparks: The need for mental health services for farmers has never been clearer. I’ve heard far too many tragic stories of farmers that couldn’t get the help they needed and ended up taking their own life. I’m glad to say the Legislature took action on this during both the 2019 and 2020 sessions. In 2019, we increased funding for farmer mental health counseling personnel so more farmers could receive these services. We also provided additional funding for a rural mental health hotline and outreach. In the Senate, I authored one of the bills that served as the foundation for these investments and successfully worked with a bipartisan group of legislators to ensure these provisions were passed into law.
In response to the further hardship brought by the pandemic, we again expanded on these investments with more funding for farmer mental health counseling and outreach. We also allocated additional dollars for farm advocates, who help farmers with mediation and financial issues. Another important step we took was extending the farmer-lender mediation period to Dec. 1, or 150 days, whichever is later. One of the goals of this extension is to take some of the stress off and make a difficult financial situation less overwhelming.
Dornink: I applaud the Legislature for addressing the mental health issues facing our farmers. Under the leadership of Senators Torrey Westrom and Bill Weber, they were able to get more staff at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to counsel folks who are struggling right now.
I think we need to talk with mental health professionals who are on the ground trying to assess where further help is needed. What solutions do they feel work? Addressing feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and depression are extremely important to overall recovery of small businesses and their families. Additionally, the already existent problem of drug addiction is a huge issue in our rural areas that needs to be addressed.
Q: Do you believe any current state mandates or regulations on agriculture have negatively affected farmers?
Sparks: One much needed change for farmers is full conformity with federal tax code on Section 179 Expensing. Currently, purchasing a piece of equipment is treated as taxable income in Minnesota rather than being tax deductible. It’s only fair for farmers that we make this fix; it is long overdue.
Another mandate that we need to repeal is the permit requirement for ditch mowing. Farmers mowing provides feed for their animals and saves millions of dollars for the state. They know the land best and we should trust their judgment. I’m glad the Legislature provided relief from permitting in 2017 and 2018, but we need to address this permanently.
In general, our farmers know their land better than anyone else and it’s important they aren’t having any extra burdens placed on them by state agencies. We have to see to it that farmers have the discretion they need to manage and maintain their land.
Overall, we must be vigilant of overbearing regulations coming out of St. Paul that diminish farmers’ ability to do this.
Dornink: This question is open ended in that there is a constant assault on our rural values by the Minneapolis/St. Paul politicians. Whether it’s the buffer law that was put in place and took away land without compensation (which my opponent voted for), the poorly written nitrogen rule that was being pushed by Gov. Dayton or the most recent assault by Gov. Walz trying to force Minnesota to adopt California Emissions Standards — all of these have put farmers in the cross hairs.
Our district needs a senator that stands up for agriculture and understands that it is in the interest of both parties to work on the behalf of our farmers to help them prosper.
Rural areas will not survive without farmers surviving generation to generation.
Q: Anything else you want to add?
Sparks: I grew up farming with my grandparents near Hayfield and I am still in the fields on the tractor every year during the harvest, so I am active and engaged with agriculture in the district. In the Senate, I’ve served on a number of agriculture committees and was chair of the Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee from 2013 to 2017. I believe that having both hands-on farming experience and agriculture policy experience gives me a robust understanding of the issues and is why I have been successful advocating for our farmers at the Legislature. I hope to have the honor of being reelected so I can continue to be a strong pro-agriculture voice in the Minnesota Senate.
Dornink: There are no better stewards of the land than the farmers that live on that land. Most farmers care deeply about what happens to the environment and want to pass it on to the next generation in better shape than they had it. They are willing to work with government agencies to look for new and innovative ways to move forward. Heavier regulations and bigger fines are not the answer.
For example, look at how the FAA has gone from a fining and threatening agency to one that works with the pilots and stresses education.
Just want to thank you for the opportunity to write in today and thank the voters for taking the time to read. Please visit my website, www.dorninkforsenate.com, or visit us on Facebook and like and share the page. Our campaign is growing a lot of momentum and people are excited to have someone running that represents their values and common sense for them in St. Paul.
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