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DFL U.S. Rep. Angie Craig and Republican challenger Tyler Kistner sat at the center of a long table of congressional candidates at Farmfest on Tuesday — and the prominent stage didn't disappoint.

Even if they avoided saying each other's name.

The two-term Second District congresswoman and the former Marine pushed their competing agricultural priorities during a roughly hourlong panel at the annual industry gathering in southwestern Minnesota's Redwood County. Craig highlighted her bill to enact year-round E15 ethanol blend at gas pumps nationwide, while Kistner vowed to refocus the upcoming farm bill on "production agriculture."

The farm bill is the massive, once-every-five-years spending package on everything from farm insurance to nutrition to rural broadband. The current law expires in 2023.

"What you get from the Biden administration was a shift to focus onto climate change and other issues," Kistner said. "The direction of the farm bill will go with who controls Congress and those subcommittees."

Brandishing bipartisan credentials, Craig said her voting record frequently aligns with Republican colleagues, including U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber from northern Minnesota's Eighth District. A member of the House Agriculture Committee, Craig also referenced a fight during the Trump administration over waivers for oil refineries.

"Are you going to support big oil or are you going to support family farmers?" Craig told the audience, indicating she sided with the ag producers in her district. "I've made my choice."

In a rematch of 2020, Craig and Kistner are vying to represent the Second District, which spans farmland and suburbs from Hastings to Le Sueur County.

Their forum wasn't expected to be the marquee event of Farmfest's first day, as a separate panel featuring the First District candidates — Republican Brad Finstad and DFLer Jeff Ettinger — was slated to open the morning.

Next Tuesday, voters in southern Minnesota's First District will go to the polls in a special election to choose a replacement for GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who died earlier this year. Also on the ballot is a primary election where voters will select candidates to run for the seat in November.

But moments before the candidates took the stage, Ettinger's campaign said that the former CEO of Hormel had tested positive for COVID and would isolate at home in Austin.

Farmfest, the annual industry gathering in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota, featured congressional candidates at a forum on Tuesday.
Farmfest, the annual industry gathering in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota, featured congressional candidates at a forum on Tuesday.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune, Star Tribune

A moderator read a statement from Ettinger saying the candidate would have spoken about rising costs for ag producers, with high inflation affecting many farmers this growing season. The DFLer's absence opened up a path for Finstad, a farmer from Brown County and former USDA official in the Trump administration, to largely go unchallenged on a topic on which he boasted expertise.

"I've been scooping manure since I was at a young age," Finstad said. "And unfortunately, that's probably prepared me for politics."

GOP State Rep. Jeremy Munson, who is challenging Finstad in the primary for the November race, invoked his rural roots, saying he empathized with the need for immigration after speaking with hog farmers unable to find labor.

"We do need to lower the red tape to make sure we can process these applications in time," Munson said .

Two other First District candidates, Democrat James Rainwater and Richard Reisdorf of the Legal Marijuana Now Party, also participated.

During the second forum Tuesday morning, candidates from the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Districts joined Craig and Kistner, each attempting to draw distinctions with their opponents. But to an audience of mostly agricultural industry officials and producers, the rhetoric on inflation, estate taxes and biofuels sounded similar across party lines.

During his allotted one-minute response to a question about biofuels, Stauber reiterated his support for year-round sale of E15, saying biofuels will be "even a bigger part of the conversation" on clean energy."

His DFL opponent, state Rep. Jen Schultz, concurred. "It's cheaper, apparently lowers our carbon footprint, and it serves the dual purpose — diversifying your commodities," she said.

The candidates also discussed the plight of the family farm, though they differed on whether industry concentration or onerous tax policy was to blame.

Afterward, farmer Jerome Graff of rural Brown County said he sensed politicians are often misleading when they say, "We've got a problem with the size of the family farm."

"Well, Cargill — that's a family operation," said Graff, referencing the Minnesota-based global food corporation.

Greg Bartz, who farms near Sleepy Eye, said Minnesota's tax policy discourages farmers from passing operations to children, and he'd like the state to reduce the estate tax.

Bartz watched the first morning debate together with a fellow Minnesota farmer and posed a telling question. "I asked him, 'Where will you retire — to South Dakota? Like everyone else does?" He added that a popular answer is Florida, though Tuesday's temperatures approaching 100 degrees felt swampy enough.