DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Which is stronger in the 7th District of Minnesota — agricultural clout or Donald Trump?
This will come clear on Nov. 3. It may be the most consequential ag-related congressional race in the nation.
U.S. House Agriculture Chairman Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is fighting for his political life in the district that the U.S. Department of Agriculture lists as having the fourth most farmers in the country. His opponent, former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, is on the ballot but her endorsement by President Donald Trump, who won the district by 30 percentage points in 2016, looms large.
The Seventh District is a sprawling thing encompassing wheat and barley country in the northwest, dairy in the east, beef and hog production and processing in the south. The district ranks first in sugar beet production, fourth in number of farms, and is big in turkey production and processing.
Peterson covers the Seventh District in his own airplane. In a typical year, he makes more than 55 parades.
“This year, I did three,” he said.
To compare, the federal government has handed out a whopping $46 billion to farmers in ad hoc payments in one year.
“I travel the countryside and get three questions from farmers," Peterson said. "1. Are we going to get another payment? 2. How much is it going to be? And 3. When are we going to get it?”
The payments were needed, he said, but, “How are we going to wean people off all of this money they’ve gotten used to?”
Law and politics
In 2018, she was former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s running mate for governor. The pair lost in the primary and Fischbach became a lobbyist for the Central Minnesota Builders Association. She is Roman Catholic and her husband, Scott, is director of the Minnesota Concerned Citizens for Life, an anti-abortion group which plays into the race, even though Peterson is pro-life.
Fischbach served on the Paynesville city council. In 2001 she succeeded Joe Bertram, a DFL member, who resigned in the wake of his shoplifting scandal.
When U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., resigned in a “Me Too” scandal, Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, appointed Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to replace him. Constitutionally, the president of the state Senate chooses a replacement to replace the lieutenant governor. Fischbach appointed herself but waited until the end of the 2018 legislative session.
Dayton threatened to pass something by “rule" if the Legislature didn’t do something. She said rural Democrats and Republicans came together to create a “less worse” policy.
What some people call “Big Ag” has been foursquare behind Peterson. Players in sugar beet, dairy and ethanol industries, especially, have stepped up to the plate, with money and moral support.
“I suppose it would have been very difficult for them not to endorse the ag chair,” Fischbach said of the endorsements. (She is endorsed by most Seventh District state legislators, including Sen. Torrey Westrom, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and Reps. Paul Anderson, Paul Torkelson, Tim Miller and Debra Kiel, all of whom are farmers or work in agriculture.)
Big Ag calling
Peterson grew up just east of Sabin, Minn., near Baker, Minn., in Clay County. His grandfather and father farmed and raised every crop — including potatoes, even pinto beans — “except sugar beets,” he said
A great-uncle, Gene Peterson, was into politics and was a Democrat, “because of Harry Truman,” Peterson explains. Truman signed the 1949 law — "still the permanent law of the country,” Peterson said — that then retained high levels of “parity,” meaning farmers should be paid a price that covers costs and allows for a profit.
“They had some pretty good times until Eisenhower was elected and appointed Ezra Taft Benson, from Utah, a farmer, agricultural economist and cooperative proponent, as secretary of agriculture. Benson opposed government supports.
“The combination of those things turned them into Democrats for life,” Peterson said. “I was there, and I saw what happened to the family. I saw how they almost lost the farm in the late 1950s.”
Peterson was in 4-H and started doing fieldwork at age 10. He remembers feeding 400 head of Holstein steers in the wintertime, raising hogs and sheep. In 1962, he graduated from high school and decided to “become a farmer and make some money,” he said. He sold 20 head of cattle from 4-H projects and used the proceeds to rent 160 acres of land.
"My dad gave me 80 acres of land for the work I was doing for him. I planted 240 acres of potatoes,” he recalled.
It was a bad year for potatoes, he said.
“I ended up planting those potatoes three times, and I never harvested a thing,” he said.
Effectively out of farming, Peterson took a job mowing road ditches for Clay County and made enough money to pay tuition to what is now Minnesota State University Moorhead. He graduated with an accounting degree and served clients out of Detroit Lakes.
A Democrat year
Peterson was elected to the state Senate in 1976, the year Jimmy Carter won the presidency. Former Seventh District Rep. Bob Bergland, D-Minn., became U.S. agriculture secretary.
Most people in the party at the time were “pro-life, pro-gun, pro-small business, and pro-agriculture.”
“Democrats, in my opinion, were more for the common people,” Peterson said.
In 1982, he ran for the Democratic nomination for Congress, and narrowly lost the nomination because “I wasn’t pro-life enough.” While the party changed on some social issues, they didn’t change in agricultural policies.
“I was not ready to do that,” Peterson said.
With support of Nancy Pelosi and others, he became ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, which he said “allowed me to stay in the Democratic party.”
The Pelosi effect
Peterson says the important thing for most Democrats is his support for the nutrition programs.
“Without the nutrition programs, you’re not going to have a farm bill,” he said. This is a blind spot for Republicans, who do don’t support nutrition programs.
The Fischbach campaign and allies assail his connections to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, with whom Peterson must get along to be placed in committee leadership. Fischbach advertises Peterson's political affiliation with Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., whom Peterson says he has little to do with and has negligible real impact as a freshman.
“The reason I’m able to do what I do is because Nancy Pelosi trusts me,” he said. Pelosi was most important politically when Peterson was trying to gain leadership roles on the Ag Committee, but some thought he was too conservative.
Pelosi has been the “most supportive leader” he’s served with in 30 years.
“You’d never get a farmer to believe that,” he said.
Pelosi understands the central valley farming areas in California — the nation’s biggest agricultural state. According to the USDA, California’s farm receipts were $50.1 billion in 2019, compared to $2.75 billion in Iowa, $21 billion in Nebraska; $16.8 billion in Minnesota, $9 billion in South Dakota, and $7.4 billion in North Dakota, and $3.7 billion in Montana.
“She gets it,” he said.
Who gets heard?
While Fischbach says it’s time for Peterson to go, he features his service and stature.
She says she’s asked to be a member of the House Agriculture Committee and is assured she’d be strongly considered.
“I’d make my voice heard and hit the ground running,” she said.
Fischbach notes she also has a background in education and trade training. In the state Senate, she represented agricultural issues, including dealing with the avian flu outbreak that hit the state’s turkey industry in 2015.
Peterson says he and the Seventh District are already heard.
“Any ag meeting in the House doesn’t start until I get in the room, and it ends when I leave,” he said. As chairman, he has frequent contact with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, or his staff, for advice and input.
“That’s something that doesn’t happen with a rank-and-file member,” he said. “I went through this. For the first 10 years, I was ignored.”
“If you’re a freshman and you’re in the minority, you’re pretty much at the bottom of the totem pole,” he said. “Right now, today, with Congressman Peterson, we’re at the top.”
Others disagree. Bill Nichol, 53, an excavating contractor from Wolverton, Minn., who helps the family farm that grows alfalfa, beans, corn and edible beans, says he's supporting Fischbach on grounds she'd have more influence in a "landslide" for Trump, which he expects. He can't complain about much with Peterson but says he's trying to punish the Democrats for their stand on American "rights to speak, defend ourselves and our private property rights."
He wants to "100% reward the president" who he thinks will help farmers "get rid of our surpluses."