The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

December 15, 2012

Farmed out: Number of farmers in new Legislature at a record low

MANKATO — Minnesota’s moose population is dropping so fast that state officials have tentatively added it to the list of species needing special attention to ensure their survival. They might want to consider endangered species status for another fading group, as well: farmers in the state Legislature.

Just nine of the 201 incoming members of the Minnesota House and Senate list themselves as farmers (with a 10th calling himself a farm owner) — a record-low number.

It’s an extraordinary collapse of the farmer population in the state Capitol — from numbers that approached 50 percent of lawmakers a century ago to less than 5 percent for the group elected Nov. 6.

A fading perspective

The decline has influenced the way, and even the pace, in which the Legislature does its job, said Rep. Paul Torkelson, one of six active farmers remaining in the 134-member House of Representatives.

The lessons taught by farming translate well to both budgeting and policy-making, said Torkelson, R-St. James. So in some respects, when it came to legislating, farmers were outstanding in their field.

“The enterprise of farming is different in a lot of ways than other professions,” he said, noting that farmers know about managing risk, understand how outside forces can undermine projected revenue, and recognize there’s no guarantee that next year will bring more income than last.

“That uncertainty, combined with the uncertainty of nature, grounds us in reality, really,” said Torkelson, who represents a sprawling rural district including Brown County. “... People, especially at the state level and people who benefit from programs of the state, expect a little more every year. And sometimes that’s just not possible.”

Thicker than flies ...

A farmer’s perspective was available at every third or fourth desk at the Capitol for most of Minnesota’s history. In some years, tillers of the earth made up nearly half the seats available for writers of the law.

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