By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
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.
As recently as 1923, 92 of the then-198 seats were held by farmers or people in closely related work such as grain elevator managers and implement dealers, according to records compiled by the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. And farmers continued to make up more than 25 percent of the Senate and House through the 1960s.
The numbers began dropping below that level in the past 50 years, but former Rep. Henry Kalis of Walters remembers seeing fellow farmers everywhere when he was elected to the House in 1974.
“We started a group of farmers, a little caucus, and we thought we were going to set the world on fire,” said Kalis, a DFLer. “It was 42 in the House.”
Legislative records show there were 49 in the entire Legislature, including the Senate, for the 1975-76 session. It was that strength that allowed pro-farmer initiatives such as the ethanol mandate — requiring the corn-based fuel to be mixed into gasoline in Minnesota — to become law despite strong initial opposition, said Kalis, who represented rural Blue Earth, Faribault and Waseca counties in the House.
The size of the farmer caucus in the Legislature was substantial enough that farmers often didn’t have to actively push for pro-agriculture policies and budgets, Kalis said. Legislative leaders knew the group was too big to ignore.
“I think it was more about scaring the leadership than about getting legislation passed,” he said of the purpose of the farmer caucus.
Now down to seven farmers/farm owners in the House and three in the Senate, there isn’t much scary about the legislative strength of agriculture.
“I didn’t think it was that small,” said Kalis, who retired from the Legislature in 2002 as one of the longest-serving lawmakers in south-central Minnesota’s history. Even in his last year, there were twice as many farmers then as now.
Lobbying and teaching
The dwindling number of lawmakers doesn’t necessarily equate to a proportionate decline in the influence of farmers. Kalis notes that the three agricultural groups when he was first elected — the Farmers Union, the Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Organization — have grown to include more specialized lobbying organizations for producers of corn, soybeans, pork, beef and other commodities.
“There are an awful lot of groups out there striving for the same thing,” he said.
Torkelson agreed that the growth in farm lobbyists — and their improved cohesiveness — has been crucial in filling the void left by the steep decline in the ranks of the farmer/lawmaker.
“They’ve been stepping up, and they’ve done a much better job of working together,” said Torkelson, who was vice president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau when he was elected to the House in 2008. “I see more effort at cooperation and working together because that increases their impact dramatically.”
Education is a more vital task for those interest groups now that 95 percent of the people crafting the budgets and writing the regulatory rules have never spent a day on a tractor or done more than briefly visit a hog barn. Along with fewer farmers, the Legislature has fewer members who grew up on a farm or at least had summer visits to the farms of uncles or grandparents.
“That’s true throughout our society, and the Legislature is reflective of that,” he said. “People are separated by two or three generations from farming — if they have any connection at all.”
Torkelson almost became one of those people who left the family farm after graduating from high school, picking up a music degree at Gustavus Adolphus College and teaching music at Fairfax High School for a few years. But he returned to his roots, taking over his father’s farm operation and growing it to 1,400 acres, plus some hog production.
And now, in a way, Torkelson is back to teaching. Rather than music, he’s instructing colleagues at the Capitol in 21st century American agriculture.
“It’s a constant process because ag has changed quite a bit over the years, and most people just don’t understand what happens on a modern farm,” said Torkelson, who is particularly troubled about a potential knowledge gap in the metro-heavy legislative leadership that will be sworn in Jan. 8. “ ... I expect it’s going to be more and more difficult to make sure farmers are treated fairly when it comes to the regulatory climate. And that’s really my biggest concern as we move into the next legislative session.”
A time to sow
There’s probably one other repercussion of the plummeting number of farmers at the Capitol — an effect that most Minnesotans have noticed in recent years as legislative sessions have tended to drag on and on. Several times, the dallying has stretched into summertime special sessions and government shutdowns as lawmakers refused to compromise on budgets and policy disputes long after the mid-May adjournment target.
That trend has mainly been blamed on growing partisanship and inflexibility, but it also has to do with the dearth of farmers, according to Kalis and Torkelson. Lawmakers can dig in and refuse to yield at the Capitol, even when spring arrives because so few of them need to worry that an extended session is going to reduce their yields if they don’t get home and dig into their planting.
Back when farmers dominated the Legislature, it might have been acceptable in January and February and March to debate endlessly and spurn proposed compromises. But when the frost left the ground and the soil dried and the weather turned sunny and warm, farmer/legislators were eager to reach a deal.
“I think it happened without realizing it,” Kalis said. “It speeded things up. And I think it affected how people voted.”
“No doubt about it,” Torkelson said. “The schedule used to more reflect the rhythm of the seasons, and we’ve gotten away from that.”