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The Voter's Voice: Farmers
By Martin Kaste
August 21, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4
Part of Election '98

Minnesota farmers are predicting 1998 will be another bad year for them - not so much because of crop blights or bad weather, but simply because prices are so low. Some agriculture experts think one-third of Minnesota's wheat farmers might quit or go bankrupt after this harvest.

SIX OF THIS YEAR'S GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATES are from the Twin Cities. It's a fact the seventh, State Senator Doug Johnson, likes to point out when he's talking to farmers.

Johnson: Rural Minnesota is hurting, and no one is fighting for rural Minnesota. The governor has to appoint a blue-ribbon commission of farmers, business leaders, local community leaders, legislators, and members of our congressional delegation to come up with a plan!
But so far there hasn't been much response to Doug Johnson's call for a special legislative session to save the family farm.

In the northwestern part of the state, in Polk County, about five miles southeast of the town of Fertile, Jim Krogsted is one of those family farmers. He raises wheat.

Krogsted: I don't mind the stress of rain. I don't mind a big black cloud coming in the west - I can handle that. But when the government starts messing in my business, that's when I get a cold chill in my spine. When they start thinking they're going to help out. Because just about every time, it backfires.
Despite Krogsted's disdain for government help notwithstanding, he does admit things aren't going well.
Kaste (reporter): Is this the best economy you've ever seen?

Krogsted: No, it's probably about as thin as it's been for a long time.
Things aren't looking much better where Krogsted's neighbors, the Blacks, also rely heavily on wheat. Sitting at her kitchen table, Linda Black says she knows there's often talk about financial crises in rural areas, but this year is different.
Black: Actually, it's kind of a good thing. It might be the coup de grace, as it were. It might be so awful, so horribly awful, that those who were kind of thinking, "Well, maybe ..." You know, the farmers' refrain is, "Well, next year." Well, the "next years" have been so bad, this year will be maybe so bad, it will push those farmers who still have the shirts on their backs, to leave.
Linda Black's politics are quite different from her neighbor's: she thinks government could help the family farmer if it wanted to. But despite recent Congressional discussions of making more loan money available, Black says she doesn't expect government to solve the situation.
Black: My husband and I look at it, we read the paper, we don't see how it's going to help us. Maybe it will help somebnody, but it won't put a nickel in our pockets. We don't need a loan, we don't need more debt. We need a price.
And price is the reason most grain farmers - whether Republican or Democrat - are not looking to their politicians for help this year. They expect to get about $2.90 a bushel this year, and they say it would take $5 just to break even. The sense among farmers around Fertile is that their fate is controlled by forces bigger than the state of Minnesota - or even the United States itself.
David Black: The NAFTA and GATT agreements opened up these markets, and we're being flooded with Canadian grain and, you know, they need a market too, but we're getting flooded with a lot of their grain.
There are no front-runners or obvious allies in the governor's race as far as the farmers in Fertile are concerned. Despite the fact that they're staring at the possibility of economic ruin, they simply don't see a solution coming out of politics. Linda Black says the least she's looking for is a candidate who doesn't have a tone of condescension in his voice when he talks about the area outside the Twin Cities:
Black: If I hear "Greater Minnesota" one more time, I'll ...
The telephone interrupts before she can say what she'll do, but when she comes back she explains. She says, to people in Fertile, state politicians just seem distant.
Black: You know "Horton Hears a Hoo"? We're like that little Hoo on the end of the clover, and we're shouting at Horton, saying, "We are here! We are here!" And we don't know if they're hearing us.
Back on the other side of the road, Jim Krogsted says he gets the same feeling from the politicians in St. Paul, and he says he pays more attention to politics on the other side of the state line.
Krogsted: I wish we were part of North Dakota, myself.

Kaste: Why?

Krogsted: Just because it's more ag-oriented, and more in tune with things. I feel Minnesota should have been divided in half, from the North Dakota border across.
Still, Jim Krogsted says he doesn't blame anyone, not the state politicians, nor the big grain companies paying the low prices. He says farmers have themselves to blame for getting involved in such a cyclical business to begin with.
Krogsted: In 44 years I've seen several cycles. When food gets short, when the country gets a little worried, the world gets worried, all of a sudden you're a glamor boy - a real good person to have - like in the early 70s, when they needed us bad.
And Jim Krogsted's philosophy takes the long view. He says he expects farmers to be in demand again and for prices to go up. He just doesn't expect that to happen anytime before he's retired and gone from the business.