Congressional candidates debate farm, energy policy

Debate crowd
A crowd gathers at Farmfest to watch a debate between Republican U.S. Senator Norm Coleman and his DFL challenger Al Franken. In addition, various other politicians attended the annual event.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Those federal farm programs deliver a lot of money to Minnesota farmers. In the last decade they've received almost $10 billion in agricultural subsidies.

Currently, crop prices are high, and farmers are earning good profits just with what they grow, plus they still get the federal subsidy. Together, those factors have brought most state farmers some of the best economic times they've ever lived through.

Congressman Collin Peterson, DFL-7th Dist., is Chairman of the House Agriculture committee and an important player in drafting farm legislation. He helped write last spring's farm bill, which will deliver billions more to Minnesota producers.

Judging by the reception hundreds of farmers gave Peterson at Farmfest, they like the bill.

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"Well, obviously I voted for the bill," said Peterson as the crowd applauded. "But even though I was the author, I didn't agree with everything that was in the bill, that was part of how it works."

Peterson said he opposed a program that delivers annual subsidies to U.S. farmers, regardless of the economic conditions.

Critics say farmers don't need the money when they're making a substantial profit on what they grow, like now. Peterson said southern politicians insisted the payments continue, mainly to help rice and cotton producers.

Sitting next to Peterson at Farmfest was his Republican opponent, Glen Menze. Despite their political differences, the two get along, and even joked at times. At one point under the hot Farmfest tent, Peterson used a hand-held fan to send some cool air Menze's way. But when discussing the new farm bill, Menze sent some political winds back, criticizing Peterson's role in the legislation.

The high prices that are helping corn and other farmers are a huge problem for hog farmers and other livestock producers. Menze said the farm bill failed to help livestock farmers struggling with high feed costs.

"Coming from the 7th District, I would have backed up our livestock industry before I would've supported rice and cotton farmers from southern United States," said Menze. "Which, unfortunately, Collin you stuck up for. I would not have."

A second major area of discussion at Farmfest was the nation's energy policy, including ethanol. The corn based fuel has been criticized for it's role in helping to increase food prices.

Tim Walz, elected two years ago to Congress in Minnesota 's 1st District, said he supports the push for ethanol, which includes federal subsidies. Walz said he's working with a bipartisan group in Congress to find solutions to the energy issue.

"T. Boone Pickens, who came and spoke to the group, said, I asked him about ethanol, and he says, 'Oh man, that ethanol is one ugly child.' He said, 'but you know what? It's our child. And sometimes they grow up handsome. Stick with it,'" said Walz.

Walz says ethanol helps diversify the nation's energy sources. He also says he's open to expanded oil drilling in the U.S., as long as measures are taken to protect the environment. His Republican opponent in the fall election Brian Davis said more drilling is a necessity.

"I would not have voted for the 2007 energy bill, because it did not release the moratorium on off-shore drilling," said Davis. "There is at least a couple of orders of magnitude more energy than we can get from oil in ANWR, which we should open; in the outer continental shelf which we should open. We're handcuffing ourselves, we're hurting our economy."

Davis faces a challenge in the Republican primary contest next month. His opponent Dick Day said he also supports expanded oil drilling in Alaska and off-shore.

Day is the former minority leader in the Minnesota Senate. Both Republicans say they support federal policy on renewable fuels, including ethanol.