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The Unseen Farm Crisis
By Brent Wolfe
August 19, 1999

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Politicians have been popping up in rural Minnesota like weeds this week - holding forums and meetings on the farm crisis. Senator Paul Wellstone stopped at three south-central Minnesota farms Thursday. Senator Rod Grams holds meetings of his own tomorrow in Moorhead, Alexandria, and St. Cloud. They're looking for ideas and backing for their farm proposals, but Congress is unlikely to make significant changes in farm policy without support from folks in town. Minnesota Public Radio's Brent Wolfe reports this farm crisis isn't translating well in the city.

TODD RESLER used to farm. Now, he lives on his farm in rural Steele County and commutes to a full-time job in Owatonna. About half the state's farmers now do at least some work off the farm, according to a U.S. Agriculture Department survey from 1997. Resler took some time off work to host one of Senator Paul Wellstone's farm meetings but his work buddies weren't there. He says most of them don't see a farm crisis because food prices don't fluctuate like commodity prices do.

Resler: And a lot of 'em have an idea that we're getting all that profit out here and I'm trying to, I keep telling them what the price is out here and I says figure that out with the price that you're paying in the stores. It doesn't drop back when we drop back. Like when our milk price went from 17 down to 10 and a half, and I says 'Did your milk or did your butter drop in the store?' Well, no. There's the whole ball game right there.

Many farmers at the meeting have similar stories. Eunice Beale helps her husband milk 100 cows near Harmony and also holds a full-time job in the graphics department of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She just rolls her eyes at some of the questions from her coworkers.

Beale: I've heard stories like our silos are full of money.
Yes. And I think they just don't understand how the market, how the large multinational corporations can control so much of our lives and how they are so dependent on a cheap food policy. How they can go to the store every day, they want milk, they know they'll find it and they how much they'll pay.

At a busy supermarket in Rochester most shoppers don't seem to know much about farm economics. Some, like Brenda Waters who grew up in Minnesota and has returned for a summer visit, have heard a little bit about the hard times.

Waters: I hear they're in a lot of financial trouble and I was driving around with my father last night, which was kind of interesting and we were going by one farm after another and he says to me, and he's got a point here, he looks at this farm, everything looks in really good shape, the buildings are painted, and he's saying, where's the financial difficulty? He's right, you look out there and you can't really see it, but I believe it's there and I think we should do whatever we can to preserve our farms.

Senator Wellstone and Dave Frederickson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, say Congress needs to act to provide a short-term bailout and long-term restructuring that will ensure fair prices for farmers. Some blame legislation from a few years ago, called Freedom to Farm, that took away price supports that had protected farmers since the Great Depression. Frederickson says time is running out because urban residents are losing touch with farmers.

Frederickson: We need to do this now. Not 10 or 15 or 20 years from now because there's still a serious connection between the people that live in metro Minnesota and rural Minnesota. If you stand out on the freeway on the weekends, you'll still see mom and dad and the kids going home to grandma or to brother-in-law or sister-in-law or in-laws and they have a connection to rural Minnesota, this generation. One more generation and I think we'll lose that opportunity.

The Farmers Union is running radio ads in the Twin Cities encouraging people to attend a rally on Saturday at the Carver County fairgrounds in Waconia. Senator Wellstone hopes he can turn the rally into momentum in Congress to rewrite the 1996 Freedom to Farm law, while Republicans are likely to focus on trying to open overseas markets to farmers.