By Brian Arola, MORGAN — A candidate forum at Tuesday’s Farmfest may not have allowed for the back and forths found in one-on-one debates, but 1st Congressional District contenders still found ample opportunity to distinguish themselves from each other on farm policies.
Prompted by a panel consisting of agricultural leaders and media, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and Republican challengers Jim Hagedorn and Steve Williams joined candidates from other congressional races to give their stances on topics including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and genetically modified seeds.
Walz, Hagedorn and Williams generally agreed on some topics. None came out in support of the TPP, none outrightly opposed GMOs and all commented on how little attention agricultural issues get on the national political scale. (Hagedorn and Williams will compete for the Republican candidacy during a primary vote Tuesday.)
Hagedorn at one point even said Walz and he differ more on how they view farmers than they do on basic farm issues. One difference he underlined, however, is Hagedorn’s staunch opposition to government regulations affecting farmers and small businesses.
“The solution is this: Congress must take back its regulatory authority,” he said to one question on the role of regulations on farming. The candidate from Blue Earth added that too many regulations are levied down on farmers by the president or the Environmental Protection Agency.
Walz said regulations don’t have to be looked at as the government telling people what to do. Many, the Mankato Democrat said, agree that some regulations make sense regarding the stewardship of land.
The two, along with Williams — a farmer himself from the Austin area — found a bit more common ground on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Farm and food trade organizations have been mixed in their support or opposition to the trade agreement.
Walz criticized the way the contract was negotiated, saying he and and his colleagues haven’t even been given a chance to read it.
“I think the flaw in this is how we negotiate these things. That’s why I disagree,” he said. “Why shouldn’t your representative be part of making that?”
Hagedorn said he'd vote against the trade agreement if elected and would prefer a different commander in chief to negotiate a better deal.
“Based on the way President Obama has handled himself, I wouldn’t vote to give him additional authority at this time,” he said. “I’d wait for Donald Trump to take over and renegotiate.”
On genetically modified crops, Williams and Hagedorn said they don’t see any evidence of GMOs being a problem. If people want to buy an item without GMOs, they can buy organic, Williams said.
Walz said GMOs and labeling don’t have to be an either/or proposition. You can come to a compromise to agree that GMOs are a good scientific advancement while also believing foods should be labeled so people know what they’re eating, he said.
Related to GMOs and the groups opposing them, the candidates were asked if the farming community can continue to tune out farm policy criticisms. Walz said a better option would be to help educate people on farming topics. Washington, D.C., he said, is more like "Forest Gump" than "House of Cards" — meaning most people simply don’t know much about agriculture.
“For us as agriculture legislators and all of you, we need to help educate people and bring them in,” he said.
Hagedorn said people should elect someone to Congress who understands the growing opposition and criticism of farming. The Environmental Protection Agency, he said, is being weaponized by Democrats to take control of production agriculture.
“There’s a brewing war on agriculture in this country just as there was a war on coal,” he said. “ … I think it’s time we send people to Washington that not only understand that but are willing to fight against it.”
After the forum, supporters from both sides came away encouraged by what they heard from their guys. Jeremy Munson, chair of Blue Earth County Republicans, said Hagedorn’s advocacy for small government hits home for him.
“First and foremost what I heard is that he wants to get government out of the way of business in general, and that goes for agriculture or any business in the state,” he said.
Hagedorn said his opposition to regulatory agencies like the EPA makes him a better candidate for farmers.
“I want to go (to Congress) and provide the types of federal policies that will make them thrive,” he said.
During both the forum and afterward, he also said he’d be able to exert more power on the House Agricultural Committee because he’d be part of the Republican majority.
Wearing a Walz shirt, Lori Sellner of Sleepy Eye said she appreciated how her candidate struck a decidedly different, more bipartisan tone in the forum. Being a Democrat in a rural area of mostly Republicans, she said she was glad to hear Walz tout his willingness to compromise.
“He’s so eager to work with others across the aisle to get things done,” she said. “That’s more important than being partisan all the time.”
Walz said the input and support of farmers is critical in his work on the agricultural committee, but so is working with the other side of the aisle. He said that sets him apart from his opponents.
“That’s apparently a big difference (between us),” he said. “I do not see bipartisanship as a vice.”