Smith, Lewis share diverging visions of rural MN future

Farmfest 2020 hosted a virtual U.S. Senate Forum with Democratic Sen. Tina Smith and Republican candidate Jason Lewis, Tuesday. The candidates were able to take part in the forum through Zoom.

Questions during the forum focused on agricultural and rural issues affecting Minnesota, especially how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Minnesota farmers.

The first question of the forum was what agriculture should receive in the next federal COVID relief bill.

Smith said she was working with Minnesota turkey producers to make sure independent turkey producers can be part of USDA relief funds. She is also working to get support for ethanol, which has been struggling due to secret refinery waivers. Smith also supports bills in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) for livestock processors.

Lewis wanted crop insurance extended to livestock as a safety net and streamlining of disaster loans.

“In the final analysis we’ve got to get the hog market back up and running again,” he said. “Our 3,000 pork producers have been devastated.”

Lewis repeated throughout the forum that he believes the COVID-19 lockdown was an overreaction and he wants to push to see meat processing reopened.

The candidates were asked how they would protect Minnesota’s renewable fuel industry and expand the market for ethanol and biodiesel.

Lewis said while in Congress he pushed for the sale of E-15 during the summer months, which was passed. Going forward he pushed for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). He believes the trade agreement had benefits on the grain side.

“We have to make certain the cost of production for these ethanol refineries are competitive,” he said. He worries about creating a glut on the market that would hurt everyone.

Smith said renewable energy is rural energy. She cited the 18 ethanol plants in Minnesota and the 1,000 of jobs involved.

“The reality is that these Trump EPA secret refinery waivers to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) have been very damaging to the ethanol industry,” Smith said. She believes these secret waivers were not fair and hurt jobs in Minnesota agriculture. In the long term, she wants to expand biodiesel and ethanol.

On climate change, the candidates were asked what federal initiatives they would like to see addressed using specific recommendations for the ag industry.

Smith wanted the country to lead on climate change action.

“Leading on climate change means we’re leading on rural energy,” she said. Smith sees solar and wind as a large revenue generator for and a cost-saving.

“I believe the United States can lead or follow on this, and I think if we lead we will be in a stronger position,” she said.

Smith is working on bipartisan bills to expand research and storage for wind and solar.

Lewis said farmers still need to rely on diesel tractors and combines that run on all kinds of energy. He stated his opposition to any taxes related to climate changes, such as carbon taxes.

“We need an energy policy that accepts all of the above,” Lewis said. “That includes all sources of energy, including renewable but also things like the Enbridge pipeline.”

With the United States and Minnesota divided on a political and philosophical level, the candidates were asked what could be done on a congressional level to build a bridge to fill this division.

Lewis blamed the division on radical actors –specifically those asking to defund police — and cited protests in Minneapolis. He also believes the endless lockdowns due to COVID-19 threatening religious liberties and liberties to gather are a reason for the division.

Lewis cited his work with Rep. Bobby Scott, D-VA 3rd district, on the criminal justice reform bill called The Juvenile Justice Reform Act as bipartisan work.

Smith said finding common ground is the best way to get things accomplished and she believes that was possible with agriculture. Smith said farm stress and mental healthcare was a concern and she had worked with Republican senators to expand mental healthcare access to school and pass bills to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

On transportation infrastructure, Lewis wants to make sure rural infrastructure improvements in broadband, highways, roads and airports but did not believe this was possible without certain energy policies, which he believes included the Enbridge pipeline.

“If you can’t support that you’re not going to fix transportation,” he said.

Smith believes transportation was about competitiveness and safety. She said farmers in Minnesota need to take products the long way around because roads and bridges cannot take the weight. In addition to roads, she wants to invest in waterways like the Mississippi and invest in railroads taking products west.

In the short term, she wants to loosen up hauling requirements for livestock and in the long-term pass an infrastructure bill that includes broadband.

A follow-up comment said that due to COVID, farmers are more often selling directly to consumers despite little public investment in local food investment. The candidates were asked what could be done on the federal level to support local food producers.

Smith said it has been a rare bright spot that farmers could sell directly to consumers, but the loss of the food service market and farm to school programs was a challenge. She wanted to support local food efforts; especially farm to school and farm to restaurant programs.

Lewis agreed that farm to school and farm to restaurants were vital programs, but they are only viable through the rising tide of economic growth. He did not believe this was possible during the lockdown. He also supported the deregulation of local farms.

On the Green New Deal, neither candidate supported the bill. Lewis called it a disaster that we designed on the coasts to punish everyone in between.

“I oppose the Green New Deal vehemently,” he said. “I am not interested in meeting those sorts of folks halfway.”

Smith said she didn’t support the deal, but said she wanted to lead on a clean energy future.

“Right now there are major technological innovations that could be happening here in the United States that are happening in China instead,” she said. She believes in expanding wind and solar energy for Minnesota agriculture to diversify revenue streams. Smith also supports the manufacturing of solar and wind energy components in the United States rather than buying from elsewhere.

Asked what Congress could do on trade, Smith said farmers want “trade, not aid.” She was a supporter of the USMCA trade deal. Going forward, the country needs to work on trade with China.

“The erraticness and chaos of trade negotiations and these tariffs over the last several years have been a challenge to Minnesota agriculture,” she said. “We need to stand up for ourselves with China and we also need to be a reliable trading partner.

Lewis said he would not play politics in delaying trade, but that will only happen with tough negotiations.

“Farmers want markets,” he said. “Getting these good trade deals done is a step in the right direction, but so is undoing these Orwellian lockdowns that keep meat processing plants from fully functioning.

On solutions for rural healthcare, Lewis was opposed to single-payer healthcare. He called for healthcare reform that involved undoing the Affordable Care Act.

Smith said the first bill she introduced in the Senate was to lower the cost of prescription drugs by cracking down on unfair competitive advantage drug companies use to raise costs. She also passed bipartisan bills to lower the cost of insulin and is working on a bill to expand maternity care.

Asked for their perspective on work visas to meet the demand of farms and processing plants, Lewis said work reform programs needed to be expanded but also needed to control illegal immigration. He said immigration bills failed to pass because Democrats refused to fund the border wall.

Smith said immigrant workers are vital to farming in Minnesota.

“It is completely counter to our needs to clamp down on work visas,” she said.


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