A view from Farmfest: Pigs, politics and tough times for farmers

Piglets sleep on top of each other.
Piglets sleep on top of each other.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Dunbar attended her first Minnesota Farmfest last summer as part of a project looking at the future of agriculture in the Midwest. The annual tradeshow features hundreds of booths featuring everything from new seed varieties to manure management equipment to corn ice cream.

Lynn Ketelsen, host of the Linder Farm Network, has been attending Farmfest for decades. She interviewed him about his observations in this political year.

Elizabeth Dunbar: What have you been doing since you arrived at Farmfest?

It's as tough a time right now as I've seen in probably 30-40 years.

Lynn Ketelsen: We have a live show from noon to 1 p.m. and we feature different guests. This year they included the CEO of Compeer Financial, gubernatorial candidates Tim Walz and Tim Pawlenty, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a farm broadcaster from Canada, the state pork ambassador and live music.

Dunbar: Is there a lot of political activity there? Is everyone wearing political buttons and carrying signs around?

Ketelsen: A lot of the supporters of the candidates who are here are wearing buttons, but it's a lot more subdued from the farmers. Typically, when there are politicians on stage there's a full house and there's a lot of cheering, but a lot of it comes from the people who came here to support the candidates. The farmers might catch bits of it, but most of them aren't interested in political activity.

Dunbar: If they're not there to see politicians, why do farmers attend Farmfest?

Ketelsen: They're here to see innovations in agriculture. There are various booths that display different things. For example, this year there's a drone field demonstration going on. These drones can spray nitrogen fertilizer in different spots on a field, and then a week later farmers can fly a drone over the same field to see how it's going, so you get a look at the before and after.

Dunbar: What's the mood like among farmers right now?

Ketelsen: It's as tough a time right now as I've seen in probably 30-40 years. But it's sort of a quiet situation. In the '80s during the farm crisis, there were very vocal farm groups that were out letting people know the situation farmers were facing. People were very aware. We don't hear a lot about it now. Farmers are hoping that things will improve, they're hoping the Farm Bill gets passed in Congress. But it's very quiet in terms of complaining.

Dunbar: Why do you think we're seeing a difference in terms of how farmers are talking about the tough times they're in?

Ketelsen: It's a very good question, and I've thought a lot about it. I think we're in a day and age when farmers are asking, "What can we do to change things?" They can vote, they can work with their commodity organizations and lobby in Congress. But otherwise, at this point, they have to wait and see if markets are going to turn around. There's not a lot of complaining and protesting and that type of thing is going to do, and the vast majority of farmers just aren't into that. So they're hoping, they're doing whatever they can to improve their own operation, but they're not out saying a whole lot.

Dunbar: MPR News reporter Mark Steil was out at Farmfest on Tuesday asking farmers how they felt about the Trump administration's tariffs, and he found mixed results. Is that what you've observed?

Ketelsen: I think so. Farmers don't know how much actual impact there has been from the tariffs. It's real hard to get a handle on that. I don't know if farmers know if that's a big reason prices are lower. Prices were low before the tariffs, quite frankly. And the other thing is we're in a period right now where farmers aren't selling anything. They're selling livestock, but not corn or soybeans. But it's definitely a tough time for pork producers, there's no doubt about it.

Dunbar: What happened with the pork industry? I attended the World Pork Expo in Des Moines last year and at that point the industry was booming and looking to export more pork.

Ketelsen: There's a couple of factors. No. 1 is we have too many hogs. When prices are good, people ramp up and they produce more. And then you get on the back end of that, and that hurts. No. 2, in this country, we use all of the bacon and ribs that we produce, but people don't eat ham like they used to. The No. 1 market for ham is Mexico. The No. 2 market is the European Union. That's where the hams have to go, and if that falls off at all, that is a real mess. The tariffs are absolutely having an impact on pork. And then people's eating habits factor in, too.

Farmers were largely undecided at Farmfest.
Farmers check out new equipment at Farmfest.
Mark Steil | MPR News 2016

Dunbar: How has the weather affected how the crops are looking this year?

Ketelsen: It's variable around the state. The southwest and parts of south-central had way too much rain early. There was ponding, there were some acres that didn't get planted, so there's parts of the state that are hurting crop-wise. Generally, though, when you drive around the state, it's a very good crop that we have coming. There's some dry areas in the Red River Valley and the northwest, but overall, even in the areas that were too wet, if they did get the crop planted, it's looking pretty good right now. It's not going to be a record, but it's certainly not going to be much of a below-average crop, in my opinion. I think it'll be pretty much average.

Dunbar: With the low commodity prices, does it seem like crop farmers are talking about diversifying their operations or changing things up to cope with that, such as by investing in livestock?

Ketelsen: Crop farmers are crop farmers, and to get into livestock is a completely foreign thing to them. If they got out of livestock, they're out of livestock. It's so expensive to do a startup now and get the facilities. As far as diversifying, there's not a whole lot they can do. A corn and soybean farmer can either plant more corn or more soybeans, and you need a crop rotation because you want to put nutrients back in the soil. So each year, there typically is not a whole lot of change in corn and soybean acres. Have some converted to hay? I haven't seen it, but hay prices are very high right now. But farmers are set up. They've got hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment costs to grow a lot of corn and a lot of soybeans, and to shift into something else is very, very difficult.

Dunbar: Is there anything else you can think of to pass along to Minnesota's non-farmers?

Ketelsen: If people in town went to work every day and they worked for a whole year and didn't get a paycheck, or at the end of the year, the employer said, "You owe me $5,000," that is what many farmers are facing right now. It is really, really hard to relate to that when you're getting a paycheck a couple times a month, compared to a farmer who has no paycheck coming in. That's the challenge that many of these farmers are facing right now, and it's a heavy, heavy burden.

Would you like to discuss this story with foodies and farmers in Minnesota? Join our Facebook Group: Feeding the Future.

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