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Down on the Farm
By Brent Wolfe
June 15, 1999
Part of the Minnesota Citizens' Forum series.
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Governor Jesse Ventura says state government needs to do everything it can to help Minnesota farmers and to prevent an economic collapse in rural areas. The governor participated in the first of four forums on agriculture this summer. He says he's open to several ideas including an anti-trust investigation of large farming conglomerates and the elimination of the state inheritance tax.

CITIZENS GATHERED AROUND THE STATE to pose questions about how to help farmers weather record-low prices for grain and livestock. U.S. Farm Service Agency state director Tracy Beckman told them they could talk about subsidies and specialty programs all they want, but he says the real problem is that a small number of large agri-businesses are driving small farmers out.

"Until we get serious about challenging and breaking up some of these big conglomerates, we're simply not going to see our agriculture in Minnesota flourish," Beckman said. "It's gotten in the hands of just a few people and, basically, they're controlling the markets."

Residents in Crookston participated in the Citizens' Forum by teleconference.

Governor Ventura will travel to Washington later this month to lobby for Minnesota agriculture. When asked whether the Justice Department should begin an anti-trust investigation of large agri-businesses, the governor didn't rule it out. "If it's monopolizing, then certainly it should be looked at," Ventura said. "What determines a monopoly? Two competitors, four, six? At what point is that determined? I'm not a lawyer."

Both the governor and state agriculture commissioner, Gene Hugoson, said small- and medium-sized farmers need to be flexible and ready to take advantage of new opportunities. Hugoson said they need to realize they probably can't farm the same way their parents and grandparents did. "Now it may involve one or both of the spouses having some outside income for some cushion to rely on," he said. "It may be diversifying into some new crops that we haven't used before because this offers some opportunities to spread that risk. It might mean going into some kind of a venture with their neighbors."

Hugoson says his department is working to develop new ways to use agricultural products and new ways to market them. But citizens at the forum kept returning to what subsidies or tax breaks government offers farmers.

Farmer Steve Brake of Wilmont asked for an end to the state inheritance tax which, he says, forces the next generation of farmers to buy their parents farm from the state. The governor said he'd gladly eliminate the tax. "If your parents paid for something and bought it and they want to pass it to you, I don't see what business it is of the government to be involved at all," Governor Ventura said.

Ventura said he'd eliminate the inheritance tax for all state residents. Another farmer from Fillmore County pointed out that Minnesotans import more apples than they grow despite ideal apple growing conditions in southeast Minnesota. He suggested state institutions be required to purchase Minnesota-grown products. Agriculture Commissioner Hugoson said the Legislature has avoided such a policy in the interest of saving money.

Ventura says he hopes a task force he's convened to examine the farm economy will build on these ideas and generate new ones. The next citizens forum on agricultureis scheduled for mid-July.