Drive through the agricultural regions of Minnesota these days and you’ll see combines and corn, soybeans and, well, a whole lot of signs: Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.
Hillary Clinton’s lead is growing in Minnesota, according to this week’s Star Tribune poll. But in rural Minnesota, affection for Trump is everywhere you look. So what, exactly, is that about? What in the world do Donald Trump and Minnesota farmers have in common?
“I think those signs are a reaction to the proliferation of restrictions,” said LeRoy Stumpf, a Minnesota farmer and influential state senator who is not campaigning for a legislative office for the first time in 35 years. “Not all of the regulations are bad, but if you keep adding to them without subtracting some, that becomes a problem.”
A changing rural Minnesota
Keep in mind that Stumpf is not some reactionary, anti-government Republican. He’s a lifelong DFLer. But he comes from another time in Minnesota. He grew up on a small family farm. He is a small farmer, and he once represented the norm in the state.
Through the 1950s, the majority of Minnesotans lived in rural parts of the state, meaning in towns of fewer than 2,500. By 1960, less than half of the population was rural. Now it’s less than 25 percent, a number that will continue to decline.
The small farm, which was once fertile ground for the DFL, has been hit especially hard. The number of farms in the state has fallen from about 103,000 in 1980 to 74,000 today. Young people can’t afford to get into an industry increasingly controlled by big interests. Today’s Minnesota farmers are also older (average age: 55) and whiter (more than 99 per cent of the farmers are white) than the rest of the state.
So does the ‘F’ still apply in DFL?
“The ‘F’ matters to us,” said DFL chairman Ken Martin. “The ‘F’ for us is fighting for the family farm; fighting for the little guy. … But I’m not going to lie to you. It’s difficult right now. Young people can’t afford to get into farming anymore. It’s big agri-business now and that’s changed the face of the rural areas of the state.”
Republicans claimed control of the House in 2014 by virtually running the table in farm country. What’s left of the farm vote could make control of the state Senate dicey for the DFL as well.
The list of problems facing DFL in farm country is long. The party and farmers have long had different views on three big social issues — God, guns and gays — even as DFL-inspired environmental regulations have increased. Now, add to that the soaring costs associated with MNsure and the Affordable Care Act. Farmers — both large and small — have been big users of those programs, which Democrats are both trying to repair and defend in the days before the election.
Even the one area of big government farmers embrace — the feds’ farm bill — is aggravating to farmers. The 2014 bill requires $489 billion in spending over a five-year period, but a big chunk of those expenditures will go for food programs that serve the poor and school children. Among others, Donald Trump has said he believes the food support portions of the proposal should be separated from the farm bill. A substantial number of farmers agree. Farm bill money, they think, should be “their” money.
But at Farmfest a few months ago, U.S. Rep. Colin Peterson, the brains behind the farm bill, explained the realities of passing a bill in the Congress. There aren’t nearly enough pols in Washington to pass a bill for farmers without the support of pols from metro areas. Food support programs that fill the farm bill buy the needed support. Farmers in the audience grumbled, but many nodded their heads in understanding. Peterson is one of the DFLers farmers trust.
Trends can change
And yet, difficult as things look for DFLers in ag-land, there are factors that can change trends. Hard economic times brought farmers and laborers together to form the Farmer-Labor Party in 1918. That party flourished as few third parties ever have, electing a majority in the state legislature and a handful of governors, senators and members of congress. The merger with the more conservative Democratic party came in 1944.
In the ensuing years, the GOP typically fared well — though it did not dominate — in Minnesota farm country. “When farmers get a little money in their pockets they become Republicans,” said Ted Winter, a small farmer and insurance agent in southwest Minnesota.
But then came the farm crisis of the 1980s. From 1979 to 1990, farm country was crushed by a combination of high-interest rates and low crop prices. The pain was immense. In Minnesota, 28,000 farms were wiped out.
According to current ag commissioner Dave Frederickson, the Republican response to the foreclosures and auctions and tears didn’t impress a lot of Minnesota farmers. In 1986, there was a huge DFL sweep in farm country, and people like Winter and Frederickson were elected to the state legislature. “The DFL helped tremendously,” according to Winter. “There were all sorts of programs that helped but the biggest was ethanol. Dave Frederickson deserves a lot of credit for that.”
Commodity prices began increasing in the 1990s, with corn being a huge winner for Minnesota farmers — prices reached $7 a bushel, triple the prices they’d been only a few years earlier. But something else happened as those commodity prices increased, Winter said. The prices of land skyrocketed, as did the cost of renting farmland, and the costs of seed, fertilizer and herbicides. “The farmer was getting about 35 per cent of the increase (for commodities),” Winter said. “The big boys were getting the rest.”
And now, commodity prices have crashed again, but the overhead costs are going down at a much slower rate, according to Winter, who believes we are on the cusp of another crisis. Another crisis, he said, would make the DFL look more appealing to state farmers.
But there are less foreboding reasons for the DFL not to give up on farm country, according to Martin. Immigrants are pouring into the mid-sized communities of rural Minnesota, taking ag-related jobs. And while young people may not be able to afford to get into farming, they are seeking jobs in the mid-sized communities of ag country. Martin describes those factors — a younger, more diverse population — as “our saving grace” in the years ahead in farm country.
But in the days ahead, there’s an election. And for now, there remains a lot of Trump signs next to the tall corn.