Klobuchar fields concerns on ag antitrust, wind and solar growth and childcare access in southern Minnesota
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar pledged to fight ag antirust cases, weigh the cost of wind and solar incentives and address childcare deserts in rural Minnesota.
MANTORVILLE, Minn. — For insight on the fourth farm bill she'll take part in crafting, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar got an earful from area farmers and residents during a recent listening session and lunch hosted by the Dodge County Farmers Union.
Klobuchar and Sen. Tina Smith both sit on Minnesota's Senate Ag Committee, while Rep. Angie Craig and Rep. Brad Finstad serve on Minnesota's House Ag Committee. Representatives for Finstad, who operates a multigenerational farm with his extended family in New Ulm, Minnesota, and Smith, were also at the March 13 gathering.
Input from producers related to the next farm bill, along with issues such as antitrust laws, the economic impact from wind and solar expansion and childcare access took up most of the discussion time.
"That always happens, everywhere you go, that's part of being an elected official, and sometimes, they're ahead of their time," said Klobuchar of the range of subjects covered in the hour she spent with the crowd at the old VFW in downtown Mantorville. "They actually give me arguments I can make to my colleagues, who aren't in big ag areas."
Minnesota is one of only two states that have two senators on the senate ag committee, which Klobuchar said is a "really good thing" for the state's producers who she hears from the most about ag and rural issues.
"Our job in the next two years is to get a farm bill done," said Klobuchar, one of the most senior members on the committee.
Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, said that MFU's hope for the next farm bill is that is resembles the current one with some expansions, particularly for specialty crop producers and other overlooked operations.
"The other thing that we forget, and gets overlooked a lot, is the Rural Development, Title II, that's really huge," said Wertish. "It's not only a farm bill to protect farmers when times are tough, but it's really the biggest rural development piece that's out there that actually puts funding in rural communities like this."
Before the meeting in Mantorville, Klobuchar met with local chambers of commerce for Fairbault and Owatonna to talk about rural development funding. She said both communities are dealing with housing and workforce shortages.
"I'm not telling you anything you don't know about, but we have a lot of openings in our manufacturing plants, of course, which all feeds into our towns and everything else," she said. "We want to make sure we have enough workforce in the ag area, but also other areas, so that means more housing."
Antitrust fight escalates
Wertish said MFU's Fairness for Farmers campaign has been successful at bringing more awareness of the impact corporate consolidation has on family farms.
"COVID really brought out — primarily in the meatpacking industry — concentration, and how it's affected agriculture," said Wertish.
Dodge County farmer Jim Checkel, who also worked as a lab technician at Mayo Clinic for over 40 years, asked Klobuchar what could be in the farm bill to fix the corporate consolidation that's hurting the bottom line of farmers.
Checkel cited the latest USDA's Economic Research Service Farm Household Income Forecast, which showed the median total farm household income in 2022 to be around $94,853, and $96,715 in 2023 — only a 2.8 percent increase from the last year and 3.6 percent decline after inflation.
"How much of that comes from farm income?" he asked Klobuchar, who said she wasn't sure. "The answer is about $600."
The reality for Checkel and most farm families is to rely on off-farm income.
"Off-farm income is essential for almost every farm family, because you can't make a living farming," said Checkel.
While farmers are paying more for inputs across the board, Minnesota-based Cargill reported its revenue jumped 23% from a year earlier to a record $165 billion, explained Checkel. Companies like ADM and Bunge Ltd also reported solid earnings during high farm product prices and robust global demand.
"This is a system that is supporting big business, and it's not supporting rural communities," he said. "It's devastating rural Minnesota."
Klobuchar said she hopes to have a title in the Farm Bill, or at least a piece of the title devoted to antitrust to address the inequality between producer earnings and those by corporations.
Use of the Sherman Act is ineffective due to Supreme Court decisions which she said "have gotten so narrow," plus the pressure from lobbyists.
"There's 2,800 tech lawyers and lobbyists and I have two lawyers taking on the biggest companies the world has ever known," she said. "Whether it is with Ticketmaster or with meatpacking, or with pharma, we're just sitting there letting it happen, and these lobbyists come in all the time, honestly, and beat us out."
Klobuchar said the best solution would be to amend the antitrust laws for every industry, not just farming.
"Every time we try, you get a push back on the court level, and that's why I have advocated, and it's not radical at all," said Klobuchar on amending antitrust laws. "Trump's head of antitrust, Makan Delrahim, favored this change, a bunch of people in the Biden administration favor it."
The case for making what Klobuchar calls "common sense" changes to U.S. antitrust laws has momentum, following the fallout from fans of Taylor Swift, who last year were upset to find out their only platform to buy tickets for the singer’s Eras tour — Ticketmaster — was riddled with technical problems and unfair pricing practices.
Protests by Swifties were followed by antitrust watchdogs and regulators to zero in on the company's competitive position in the market, and the Department of Justice opened an antitrust investigation into the world’s biggest concert promoter. Last month, a Senate panel held a hearing on Ticketmaster’s unfair rollout to the tour.
"Weirdly, the Ticketmaster hearing, with these Taylor Swift protesters, which was the funniest thing I've ever seen in my life — on the side against consolidation, did captivate a bunch of people," said Klobuchar. "My view is that whenever we can get people to focus on this, it's good."
Wind and solar production
Rodney Peterson, president of the Dodge County Farmers Union, said he didn't know Klobuchar would be in attendance until she walked through the door, but he was grateful for the opportunity to speak to her in person.
"The issues that are important need to be brought before her just like it would be to her staff," he said. "In fact, I like it better to be able to do it right to the senator because then she heard it from the horse's mouth."
Peterson said in Dodge County, the No. 1 gross domestic product comes from agriculture.
"By far," he said. "We don't have much for industry in Dodge County, and agriculture is everything, and ag is our product."
One topic that got a lot of play at the March 13 meeting was the expansion of wind and solar operations in the area. The economic impact the operations have in Dodge County is smaller than production agriculture, said Peterson.
"If you take 1,500 acres out of production and 10 acres over here, and 20 acres over there — that production affects all the other entities that are open to help with the ag side, like the fertilizer plants and the elevators and the truck drivers," he said. "It's a trickle down kind of thing."
Solar and wind operations started to replace productive farmland about a decade ago in Dodge County, said Peterson.
"They slowly came into Dodge County, especially when they passed the bills to help cover the cost of putting them in," said Peterson. "Nobody's delivering anything out there, and nobody's putting any stuff on the ground, so it's just dormant, and just energy is going through some power lines, and we don't see much production of anything."
Klobuchar heard at least three separate questions regarding wind and solar expanding onto farmland at the March 13 meeting.
"If you want all this conservation, and you want wind and solar, then we got to make sure we're funding the land for this, to help our farmers so they keep making food and producing food while we're doing the other thing," said Klobuchar. "Some of that means them being able to do it on their own land."
Rural childcare access
Klobuchar addressed "big time" issues with childcare for rural areas.
"This was all going on before COVID, but it's gotten worse in terms of the need," she said. "Childcare deserts are in rural America."
Finding nearby and affordable childcare in Dodge County is difficult, said Peterson.
"One of the people that was here today, she has three children, and they all go to a different day care provider, because of the ages and number you're allowed to have in one," he said.
The city of Rochester, over 30 miles away, has some larger daycares that can handle hundreds of children.
"Most of ours are single people, and so we need to have incentives for them, because the requirements for a daycare provider are ungodly," he said. "We need to make sure that we can help them with all that startup cost, to make sure they convert their house to be compatible with the laws that Minnesota has, and all that."
Klobuchar said childcare could be addressed in the farm bill.
"We'll be able to do some things (about childcare) in the rural development with funding, but we need a federal childcare law to make it easier," she said. "State and federal, we need to work on housing and incentives."