For 50 years, a congressman from Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District — encompassing western Minnesota cornfields up to the sugar beet stockpiles in the Red River Valley — has sat on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.
That meant someone from the nation’s third-largest congressional district by number of farms, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture ag census, has been there to mold the farm bill, which is renewed every five years.
For over a quarter century, that was Collin Peterson.
“There’s an old adage: Collin Peterson has forgotten more about the farm bill than anyone has ever known,” Heidi Heitkamp, former U.S. senator from North Dakota, said in an interview. “He shepherded so many of those through.”
But Peterson’s replacement, Republican Rep. Michelle Fischbach, who bested the DFLer by 13 points in 2020, won’t be sitting on the House ag committee this year when it updates the Agricultural Improvement Act, set to expire in September.
Without a representative from this farm-rich region of rural Minnesota directly drafting the bill, the state’s nation-leading sugar beet growers could be more exposed. The measure that also funds the tranche of food assistance programs could curtail federal dollars at a time of growing food insecurity brought on by inflation.
Under the new Republican majority, Fischbach earned a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, overseeing the nation’s tax policy. She also has a role on the House’s Budget panel and the Ethics Committee, along with returning to the high-stakes Rules Committee.
“I have a unique opportunity to play a pivotal role in the upcoming farm bill through my positions on the Ways and Means and the Rules Committees,” Fischbach said in a statement to the Star Tribune. “As a member of the Rules Committee, I am able to debate every bill that comes to the Floor so I am uniquely positioned to argue against any harmful cuts to crop insurance and other critical programs.”
On Capitol Hill recently, she declined to answer a question from a reporter about no longer serving on the Agriculture Committee.
Reached on Tuesday, Peterson said Fischbach’s committee assignments had “raised some eyebrows” back home. Asked whether serving on Ways and Means would be good for farmers, Peterson said, “It is for hedge managers.”
But Dan Glessing, a dairy farmer from Wright County and president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, defended her move, suggesting Fischbach, as a congresswoman representing a farm district, might give more support for rural issues on a national stage.
“I think it’s a great move, a strategic move,” Glessing said. “Ways and Means basically touches everything. And it’s not like we don’t have representation on the ag committee.”
Two Minnesotans — Democratic Rep. Angie Craig and Republican Rep. Brad Finstad — serve on House ag, with Finstad chairing a nutrition, foreign agriculture and horticulture subcommittee.
“As one of the few real active farmers and someone that’s just spent some time working on farm policy for quite some time, I’m excited to do it,” Finstad said.
Craig sought from Democratic leadership one of a handful of waivers the party was allotted to return to the ag committee. “It was a heckuva fight to get back to the ag committee,” she said. “My philosophy this farm bill is, ‘Don’t screw it up.’ The 2018 farm bill was a really good bill.”
The borders of Minnesota’s Seventh District have shifted over time, but the rural region has long had an outsized voice on federal farm policy. In the 1920s, Congressman Andrew Volstead — a Granite Falls mayor — paved the way for farmer cooperatives. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter named Rep. Robert Bergland, representing the district, as his USDA secretary.
Randy Russell, who heads a leading agriculture lobbying firm, said Minnesota remains well-positioned to steer the ag conversation. “There is only one other state with two senators on the ag committee and that’s Iowa.”
Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith both sit on Senate ag.
“I said from the very beginning that ag was my number one priority when I got to the Senate, because of the fact that it is very important,” said Klobuchar, who started serving on the panel during her first term.
Russell believes all aspects of the farm bill need to be ready to defend the program’s funding. In February, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected a $1.4 trillion deficit for 2023 — just over 5% of U.S. gross domestic product.
The new Republican House majority has promised to rein in spending. Without cuts to health and senior entitlements, nor to the military, packages like the farm bill become alluring targets.
Last year, the Republican Study Committee proposed splintering funding for nutrition programs out of the farm bill and phasing out the U.S. sugar program, which has stabilized sugar’s price since the 1980s.
Neil Rockstad, a beet farmer from Ada, Minn., and president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, defended the controls, citing illegal sugar dumping by foreign competitors. Rockstad acknowledged an uphill lobbying road.
“We do take those reports seriously,” Rockstad said. “And we’ve hit the ground running with our educational efforts. We work with whoever we need to in Congress, whichever party, and whatever state.”
While Republicans control the House, Democrats run the Senate. So any package will need to be agreed on by both parties.
Minnesota tops the nation in sugar beet production, but the crop ranks a distant fourth in total acres planted, below the state’s leading commodities, corn, soybeans and wheat. Over the last year, Minnesota’s federal delegation has visited ethanol plants, livestock producers, barns and even the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab, to prepare for the once-every-five-years negotiations.
At listening sessions last summer, farmer associations opposed linking crop insurance with conservation measures. But budget hawks have eyed the risk management title. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has recommended ceasing subsidized insurance payments to producers whose gross income exceeds $900,000.
Another fight will come over the federal government’s food assistance, the lion’s share of the bill’s spending. Funding for nutrition programs accounted for 76% of the 2018 farm bill.
As inflation stretches family budgets and pandemic-era government assistance programs end, Second Harvest Heartland executive director Allison O’Toole argued it’s a bad time to cut nutrition assistance. She noted 2022 ended with 2 million more food shelf visits across the Second Harvest network than the year before.
“The nutrition programs will very likely be under attack, and I am always hopeful that we will continue to reach a bipartisan agreement on the farm bill,” O’Toole said. “It is this bright light in the whole legislative process.”
But the ag committee won’t have the conservative Democrat from western Minnesota who found a way to pass farm bills.
During the 2020 campaign, former Peterson staffer Grant Herfindahl recounted hearing his boss called a “puppet” to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Collin backed Nancy Pelosi about 50 percent of the time,” Herfindahl, a former USDA Farm Service administrator from Minnesota, said. “Nancy Pelosi backed Collin Peterson on ag issues that benefited our district 100percent of the time.”
The new test will be whether Republican leadership puts the same faith in Fischbach, the second-term congresswoman from western Minnesota.
“I know how hard she works on behalf of her farmers and processors,” said Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Glenn Thompson, the Republican leader of the House Agriculture Committee. “She still has, maybe not a vote, but a voice at the table. And I’m relying on her with Ways and Means and Rules to be able to help us.”