Candidate Q&A: Minnesota House District 27A
By Mike Stoll, Austin Daily Herald
Author’s note: This is a continuation of the Tribune’s candidate Q&A features and the fourth such feature with District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett (R) and challenger Thomas Martinez (DFL). In this feature, the candidates were asked questions about agriculture.
How would you rate the overall state of agriculture in District 27A?
Peggy Bennett: The comments I’ve heard from farmers of late are that they see a good crop overall — some with a very good crop — however, they need higher yields to break even or make a living. Prices have increased, but have a long way to go.
The lack of Minnesota conformity with the federal Section 179 tax code has been extremely harmful for farmers (as well as many other small businesses.) Because of the exceedingly high costs of farm machinery, farmers have been hit especially hard by this tax law. Some farmers I have spoken to have had to take out a second mortgage on their homes and are close to bankruptcy because of this lack of tax conformity.
I have been working hard with local farmers for the last number of months to get Section 179 passed. Though the House Democrats have been using this as a leverage tool — sadly at the expense of devastated farmers — we were finally able to recently pass this in the Legislature. I am incredibly happy that this heavy burden will be lifted from farmers and small businesses.
Thomas Martinez: Crops appear set to keep pace with record yields, but trouble finding markets is producing an oversupply and driving commodity prices down.
Farmers and agriculture are the backbone of 27A. The health of our people, our communities and our economy depend a great deal on our farmers and the businesses they support. Throughout 27A we are blessed to have hard-working families stewarding some of the most productive farmland in the world.
When I talk with farmers, I hear several common concerns: they want an end to the trade war with China so they can have a better market for their crops, they need continued support for ethanol, they need continued support for federal crop insurance to manage the risks they face from climate change and they want access to affordable health care and broadband internet.
If elected to the state Legislature, I will support a higher national ethanol standard, work to provide everyone in District 27A with access to affordable health care, including mental health care services, work to expand broadband access to the entire state, and be an ally of the agricultural economy and community as we transfer to a more sustainable and renewable model. Moving to a renewable energy grid would help farmers diversify their income and help insulate them from commodity price volatility.
How would you address concerns over recent events that have influenced food prices?
Bennett: COVID-19 issues hit our hog farmers incredibly hard. Because of the COVID-related closures of processing plants, farmers had to deal with the killings of perfectly good hogs and piglets. This was devastating both emotionally and financially for hog farmers. This crisis also had the potential to negatively affect grain farmers, whose crops feed hogs, as well as cause the price of pork to skyrocket for families whose pocketbooks had already been hit hard by our state’s COVID-19 response.
As soon as I became aware that the hog processing plants were shutting down due to COVID-19, causing many farmers to no longer be able to process their hogs, I immediately reached out to our Minnesota agriculture commissioner, Minnesota House ag leaders on both sides of the aisle and our U.S. congressman to advocate for help. I also contacted a southern Minnesota television station to get this issue out and in front of the public and to raise awareness at the state level.
Though the federal government did react with some financial help for farmers to dispose of their euthanized hogs, I was saddened at the lack of real help at the state level. We need to work on government responsiveness. Sometimes a week or two can make the difference between surviving and bankruptcy.
Martinez: It is important to recognize that the U.S. has one of the safest and most efficient food production systems in the world. As a percentage of household income, we as a nation pay less for food than almost anyone else.
COVID-19 initially caused some people to stock up on food, and we saw many bare grocery shelves, but we never had an actual shortage of food. What we saw were supply chain disruptions that resulted from a shift in Minnesotans’ spending on food and drink services to a large influx of grocery shopping.
Then there have been problems caused by the spread of COVID-19 in meat-packing plants. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture made recommendations and took practical measures to protect the safety of meat-packing employees. Now it is up to state leaders and employers to ensure that those workers have access to adequate PPE, are being monitored daily, and following quarantining and contact-tracing precautions. We need to keep our food system working and prevent farmers from having to euthanize healthy, valuable livestock.
How would you address mental health concerns for farmers struggling to maintain their businesses during this time?
Bennett: The unique stressors linked with farming have made mental health an issue for farmers for many years — not just during COVID-19. Coping with the stresses of things like financial loss and bad weather can become unbearable at times, especially when those life stressors stack atop each other.
Sadly, the Affordable Care Act added an additional stressor for farmers by devastating rural health care and leaving them with the financial stress of high premiums and high deductibles.
Since I have been in the Legislature, we have increased funding for programming to help give farmers the support they need to cope with rural stresses. Minnesota currently has a network of farm advocates through the Department of Agriculture. We recently engaged in a bipartisan effort at the legislature to successfully add an additional farm counselor to cover northern Minnesota. I have advocated for programs like these and will continue to do so.
In addition, I was part of a successful effort during the 2017-18 Legislature to initiate a reinsurance program for our state that allows Minnesota to receive federal dollars which we then use to reduce health insurance premiums and create market stability for farmers and others on the individual market. This is a start, but there is more to do.
Martinez: First, access to affordable health care, including mental health care and substance abuse treatment, is crucial for everyone in rural Minnesota, including farmers.
This is one of the most important issues to me, and our district is in a federally designated mental health professional shortage area.
Second, I pledge to work with MDH to de-stigmatize mental health issues and promote awareness of mental health services. It is a health issue, and the consequences of mental illness are every bit as costly to individuals and families as a broken bone or disease.
In the U.S., the suicide rate in rural counties is nearly twice as high as in metro areas. Almost all of us will face a mental health issue at some point in our lives and we need to be able to talk about this openly in a constructive environment, without shame.
Third, we need to improve rural broadband so that people can use telehealth services. This is a much more efficient way to deliver mental health services, improving accessibility and saving money. It is also safer for the time being because COVID-19 is forcing us to innovate the ways that health professionals interact with patients.
If any farmers reading this want to know what resources are currently available to them, I would suggest starting with the Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline at 883-600-2670 or www.mda.state.mn.us/about/mnfarmerstress.
Do you believe any current state mandates or regulations on agriculture have negatively impacted ag businesses?
Bennett: The state Legislature and Minnesota agencies are constantly adding new laws and regulations on top of old ones. Often, an agency’s interpretation and implementation of a law can become more oppressive than the law itself.
Our state agencies need to be more about education and less about penalties. There are way too many cases of “gotcha” on a technicality where fines are levied when the farmer didn’t even know it was wrong. I’d like to work to reform how our agencies work with farmers. We can keep our state safe and environmentally viable by having government agencies work alongside farmers to help and educate instead of standing over them with a big stick, ready to pounce on every mistake.
Martinez: Many farmers are farming land that has been in their family for generations and they sincerely hope to pass it onto the next generation. That means caring for it and maintaining its value.
I have heard from some farmers that they do not feel enough control at times, such as not having the right to repair their own farm equipment (this is a lack of regulation), or being told when they can mow their own ditches. It would be my job as the elected representative of 27A to represent all the people of my district as well as the overall health of our environment. There will be times when different groups of people have competing interests and concerns, and at those times I intend to ask questions, listen carefully and make the best decision I can based on the available science and the interests of my constituents.
Anything else you want to add?
Martinez: I would just like to thank the hardworking farm families and agriculture-related workers in southern Minnesota. They work long hours, sometimes under harsh and hazardous conditions, to produce our food, fiber and fuel. I have a lot of respect for the physical work it takes, the resourcefulness and variety of skills required and the people who do it.
I have had the pleasure of marrying into a farming family in Hayward. My wife’s extended family has farmland here and they want to be able to pass it down to future generations. My commitment to them and the agricultural community at large is unwavering.
Above all, I am an environmentalist willing to put in the time and energy to see that the well-being of our farm families and our ecosystem persist.
Bennett: One of my favorite things about my job as a state representative is to be able to get out and around to visit with the farmers in our district. I have ridden along in a combine and observed the workings of the corn harvest, learned how to plant soybeans in a tractor ride-along, stood in the midst of a barnful of cackling turkeys and observed a hog raising facility. All these experiences have given me the utmost respect for farmers.
They are some of the most talented, hardworking and knowledgeable people I know.
Thank you to our farmers for the work you do to give us a productive state and put food on our tables. Be safe this harvest season!