By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer
— Sen. Al Franken talked animal rights with hog producers, ethanol with corn growers and the farm bill with everyone.
His positions largely satisfied the agricultural interests sitting in Kevin and Julie Paap’s rural Vernon Center barn Friday. Franken was invited by Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, to talk about agriculture. The group recently named Franken a “Friend of the Farm Bureau.”
The lack of a farm bill generates the most interest, but it’s the issue over which Franken has the least control. The Senate passed the bill, which hasn’t gone to a vote in the House of Representatives.
Franken said it has the votes to pass, but Republican leaders aren’t giving it a hearing because it doesn’t have a majority of Republican votes.
“What I’m hearing is not good news,” Franken said.
Even if the bill doesn’t pass, certain provisions, such as crop insurance, would continue, said Kent Thiesse, vice president of MinnStar Bank. But some others, such as a measure supporting international exports, would end.
On most of the agricultural issues, Franken’s positions were popular.
He opposed a Department of Labor regulation that would have forbid 15-year-olds from working with any battery-powered tool.
He called the rule “a perfect case of one of these bone-headed bureaucratic initiatives.”
Likewise, he sided with farmers on the issue of horse slaughter.
“I’ve made some enemies from my old friends,” he said of the famous actors and actresses who asked him not to support it. (He later said they were still friends, though they disagreed on this issue.)
“I guess a horse to them is a dog, or something,” he said.
On animal rights, Franken said his visit a few years ago to the Courtland-area hog farm of Reuben and Judy Bode helped convince him that the practice of individually crating baby pigs was humane. The alternative, grouping larger and smaller pigs, was more inhumane because the pigs end up fighting for food, he said.
He suggested that the issue should be put in perspective.
“We’re eating these things. Once you’re backing up from that, what’re you talking about,” he said.
Franken also said he supports maintaining the renewable fuels standard, which requires a certain amount of ethanol be added to the nation’s fuel, even in the face of a yield-cutting drought.
He called ethanol “good in and of itself, and a platform to cellulosic (ethanol).”
While ethanol raises corn prices, Franken cited a University of Iowa study that found the renewable fuel standard is responsible for a price increase of less than 5 percent.
The discussion wasn’t entirely an echo chamber, though.
One farmer asked Franken about what he worried would be burdensome regulation on nutrient pollution because of the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
They didn’t quite see eye-to-eye.
“Hypoxia is a problem,” Franken said, using the scientific term for wildlife-killing oxygen depletion, often caused by excess nutrients. “We don’t want dead zones.”
The farmer countered that there are about 29 dead zones around the world, and some are caused by natural forces such as the mixing of fresh and salt water.
Franken replied that he wasn’t a scientist but the Gulf has been mixing salt and fresh water for quite some time, though hypoxia is getting worse.
He asked the farmer what sorts of regulation he was worried about, and was told one example is a limit on when nitrogen could be applied to crops.
At this point, Paap changed the subject.
“What we really need help for is to tell what the weather is going to be like next spring,” he said to laughter.
After the meeting, Dave Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, said the Iowa study was based on a projection of higher yields, and the real effect of the fuel standard will be likely greater. He supports relaxing the standard for a short period of time in order to relax demand.
“There’s not enough corn” to satisfy everyone’s demand, he said.
Franken, a former comedian, managed a few jokes.
After explaining his farm-free suburban upbringing, he asked the crowd to guess where an 8-year-old Franken would have thought his food came from.
“The grocery store,” someone said.
“No, I would’ve said farms, because I wasn’t a complete idiot,” he said.
After bending a few ears in the barn, Franken hopped in a combine to bend a few more.
“We asked if he wanted to do a little combining,” Paap said.