Farmers To Politicians: Get Along And Do Your Work

Dale, Stengel

Gene Stengel and Roger Dale sprinkled seasoning on pork chops, then grilled them to just the right temperature to serve to hungry Farmfest visitors.

But they cranked up the heat while roasting politicians of all stripes, in Washington and St. Paul, because they cannot work together.

“People are getting disgusted out here,” Dale said.

That attitude could affect voter participation in this year’s election, he added. “Some people don’t give a rip anymore.”

Stengel is president and Dale vice president of the Yellow Medicine County Farm Bureau and lean to the political right. But similar comments came from those on both sides and in the middle throughout Farmfest, which drew farmers from the region to the rural Redwood Falls field where the agriculture trade show is held annually.

The disgust, as Dale called it, was noticeable in several ways during the Tuesday-through-Thursday event.

For instance, U.S. House and U.S. Senate candidates involved in forums received far lighter applause than usual, and the Senate forum attracted fewer visitors than for similar events over the past several years. Also, many people manning political booths reported less interest than in past election years.

Candidates from both major political parties played on voters’ frustration.

During a 90-minute U.S. Senate candidate forum, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat facing Republican Kurt Bills, frequently mentioned her efforts to work with Republican senators. She also used that tactic at her party’s convention in June, later wondering how it played in front of a room full of Democrats to emphasize her work with the GOP.

At Farmfest, such comments played well.

Controversial Republican candidate Mike Parry, facing Allen Quist in Tuesday’s 1st Congressional District primary election, closed his portion of a U.S. House forum by telling the audience that voters should elect someone who can work with both sides. He said more statesmen are needed in government, a comment that came hours after he created a political firestorm by telling a Republican fundraiser that when he met earlier this year with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton he saw the governor popping “15 or 16 pills.”

Farmfest is meant to attract farmers to look over new machinery, seeds and other agriculture necessities. But dotted among those displays are political booths, especially in election years. Statewide and farm-country candidates generally make Farmfest a must-attend event.

The most-heard comment at the Democratic-Farmer-Laborite booth? “Frustration with inaction in Washington,” said Paul Wright, the 7th Congressional District chairman from Hutchinson.

Nearby in the Republican booth, visitors were more interested in signing petitions about social issues than talking about candidates.

Few Democrats stopped by. “You kind of preach to the choir,” said Ray Thull of Lucan, a banker for more than 50 years before retiring in June.

The Minnesota GOP faces a bit of a problem because presidential candidate Mitt Romney has little presence in the state, although Thull said “he’s going to ramp it up.” Another Republican issue is few people know the party’s U.S. Senate candidate, first-term state Rep. Bills of suburban Rosemount.

Thull said he heard a lot of farmers complaining that Americans do not realize that 80 percent of the farm bill actually goes to nutrition programs such as food stamps.

But while Republicans like to complain about the federal government spending too much on such welfare-type programs, Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson pointed out that during a U.S. House forum Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat representing southern Minnesota, received the most applause of the day when he told the audience that the bulk of that nutrition funding goes to those older than 65 and younger than 3.

Farmers often complained about both parties for not being able to pass a new farm bill to replace federal farm policies that are expiring. They said Washington politicians have kicked the can down the road too long.

“They are going to wear out that can,” Thull joked.

At Sen. Al Franken’s booth, long-time DFL state representative and now Franken agriculture aide Al Juhnke said farmers in the area generally are happy, with good crops and prices expected.

Better crops, less talk is how he saw it. “I’m hearing less political talk overall. … Generally, people are happy.”

A couple of corn farmers and friends from Nicollet County sparred about policies, but agreed politics should return to how it used to be.

“I think people are sick of politics,” said John Luepke, the more conservative of the two.

Added Jerry Payne: “When there is no compromise, that is (expletive).”

As Farmers Union president, Peterson leans Democratic, but said there is enough blame to do around,

“People who 10 years ago were very positive about the political process now are down a notch or two,” he said. “The civility has disappeared. … Everybody has their own facts these days.”

Even a DFL partisan such as Wright said cooperation is needed. “The fact is, in Washington and St. Paul, things can get done only if they work together.”

While Farmfest visitors agreed on the problem, they had few ideas about how to solve it. And some fear voters will give up,

While turning pork chops on the grill, Stengel summed it up: “We are hearing it more and more: ‘What’s the use?’”