CANTON, Minn. – Bonnie and Vance Haugen's small Fillmore County dairy farm weathered nearly three decades of relentless market forces, shifting government policies and the unpredictable dictates of nature and biology. But 2020 was the year that almost killed this family operation.
"Prices were crashing," Bonnie Haugen said, recalling the chaos in the U.S. food supply that accompanied the early weeks of last spring's COVID-19 lockdown. "We couldn't sell steers, we couldn't sell bull calves. There was a two- to three-week period where we really didn't know what was going to happen. We didn't think we'd have to go under but it was an option we put on the table."
Things stabilized, but not without federal intervention. The Haugens just filled out last year's taxes: "We got over $56,000 in government payments," said Vance Haugen, whose chest-length gray beard makes him resemble his many Amish neighbors here in Minnesota's southeastern corner.
A new year brings new reasons for optimism for Minnesota's agricultural producers, fueled by a booming export market with China and forecasts for a strong 2021 harvest.
At the same time, a new Democratic administration in Washington has farmers wondering what's in store from President Joe Biden. Voters across rural Minnesota and America supported former President Donald Trump in much larger numbers, and the new administration has signaled that the fight against climate change will be a guiding focus of its agriculture policy.
"With Trump, you had an agriculture policy pivoting around the trade disputes with China," said Brad Finstad, who recently wrapped up his appointment as state director for rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Trump. "But they put in the programs to soften that blow, the direct payments to farmers. I think the market has corrected a little bit and we're seeing some pretty good prices in the corn and soybean markets."
Last week the U.S. Senate, including Minnesota's two Democratic senators, voted overwhelmingly to confirm Iowa's Tom Vilsack as U.S. secretary of agriculture. Vilsack held the job for the entirety of the Obama-Biden administration, and his political and personal ties to Biden go back decades further.
"Whether you like Tom Vilsack or not, you know he has Joe Biden's ear," said Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen, a Democrat appointed by Gov. Tim Walz. As a candidate, Biden released a long, detailed plan to revive rural America that calls for making federal agriculture policy central to the fight against climate change.
"Agriculture writ large is ready for this, much more than before," Vilsack said in an interview last month with Iowa's Storm Lake Times. He talked of creating federal incentives for practices such as organic production, cover cropping and crop rotation intended to increase the amount of carbon stored in soil rather than expelling it into the atmosphere, and for enrolling more farmland in conservation programs.
Those efforts could be bankrolled in large part with money from the USDA's Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC). In the Trump administration, the USDA directed some $46 billion from the CCC to farmers via relief payments tied to both the trade wars and the pandemic.
"As far as Trump, he caught on right away to the old tradition of making sure that farmers get the government check right before it's time to vote," said Jim VanDerPol, who farms cattle, hog and crops near Kerkhoven in western Minnesota.
A Democrat who said he would have preferred a more liberal alternative to Biden, VanDerPol was not thrilled by the Vilsack pick. "Vilsack is a corporate agriculture guy. My own optimism is tempered by that," VanDerPol said.
Before joining the Biden administration, Vilsack led the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a trade promotion group. Among the small handful of U.S. senators to vote against him last week was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The Haugens are also Democrats.
They practice rotational grazing with their cattle, meant to promote environmental sustainability. Bonnie and Vance bought their 230-acre farm, which sits on a hilltop 3 miles north of the Iowa border, at a federal auction in 1993.
"It was the farm crisis of the 1980s that gave us a chance to buy this farm," said Vance Haugen, 63.
Their son Olaf now runs the 170-head cattle operation day to day, though his parents still own the land and have stayed involved in decisionmaking. Bonnie Haugen, 62, ran the farm for years while Vance worked across the border for the University of Wisconsin Extension Service. The off-farm job provided financial stability and health insurance.
In 1970, according to numbers compiled by the USDA, the U.S. had about 630,000 active dairy farms. Today, it has fewer than 40,000. The Haugens said they hope the Biden administration puts curbs on agribusiness consolidation, though like VanDerPol, they are skeptical of Vilsack's ability to lead that charge.
"We need a fair playing field. Maybe it's too late to break up some of these massive corporate agriculture players, but that doesn't mean you can't help the small and midsize farmer," Bonnie Haugen said. She'd like to see more federal funding for apprenticeship programs to train new generations of farmers, she said, and "a serious look at health care for all, for everyone — that's going to keep more people on the farms."
Life as farmers who are also Democrats means coming to terms with being a political minority. Trump carried Swift County, where VanDerPol lives, by nearly 30 points last year; in the Haugens' Fillmore County, his margin over Biden was more than 22 points.
"I want to see Vilsack and the Biden administration actually working with farmers, not just dictating liberal policies from Washington," said Rep. Michelle Fischbach, the new Republican congresswoman from Minnesota's Seventh Congressional District, which Trump carried by nearly 30 points.
The former president's popularity helped propel Fischbach's win over former Rep. Collin Peterson, a long-serving conservative Democrat who chaired the House Agriculture Committee. "That was a huge loss for Minnesota and the Midwest," said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, which leans Republican in its endorsements but was a longtime supporter of Peterson.
"The voters decided they want a new voice," Fischbach said. She secured a seat on the Agriculture Committee, and said a top priority out of the gate is a big federal spending boost on rural broadband connectivity.
It's a priority just as frequently espoused by Democratic lawmakers. There's a long tradition of bipartisanship in agricultural policy in both Washington and St. Paul, but that hasn't stemmed the population losses and economic consolidation at the heart of rural voter discontent.
"I have a standard line about this," said Charles Fluharty, the founder and president emeritus of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Iowa. "We'll never get the Democrats to care because they don't think we'll vote for them, and we'll never get the Republicans to care because they know we'll vote for them."
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413