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Anne Kanten fought bank foreclosures, organized tractorcades to Washington, D.C., and mobilized support for state and federal policy reforms to protect small farmers both in Minnesota and around the world.

Kanten, along with her husband, Chuck, was one of the founders of the American Agriculture Movement, a grassroots organization that built a powerful following nationwide.

She was later appointed an assistant commissioner of agriculture in Minnesota, implementing programs to protect farmers that endure to this day.

"She was such a fierce advocate for farmers," said Thom Petersen, now the state's Commissioner of Agriculture. "She invested a lot of time in me to pass that passion along."

Kanten, 92, died of COVID-19 on Dec. 7.

The daughter of Gunner and Gertrude Knutson who emigrated from Norway in 1920, she grew up on a farm in Iowa and earned an education degree from St. Olaf College in Northfield in 1952. There she met Chuck Kanten, a third-generation farmer from Milan, Minn., 45 miles west of Willmar, and moved to his farm.

"She always had this big worldview from when we were small kids," recalled her daughter, Becky Kanten-McCoy.

During the 1970s, Kanten chaired a global mission board of the American Lutheran Church and saw firsthand the inequities in other countries.

"We saw the rich wealth of the white farmer in South Africa, who grew the sugar cane and the vegetables and the Black, who was assigned to the homeland, which was the rocks and the land that was not very productive," she said in an interview with the Minnesota Historical Society.

Kanten and her husband played a major role in organizing a national tractorcade to Washington in 1979 to protest unfair farm commodity prices that were hurting farmers. Their son, Kent, drove the family tractor. The line of tractors stretched 35 miles long, Kent said. Anne and Chuck flew out, and thousands of farmers lobbied Congress.

"In many ways Anne Kanten was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King of the movement to save the family farm," said local folk singer Larry Long, who joined the tractorcade.

Kanten and two other farm women were the subjects of "Dairy Queens," a documentary about the farm crisis, which aired nationally on PBS in 1982. "Anne was really the leader of the American Agriculture Movement," said John DeGraaf of Seattle, the film's director.

Mark Ritchie, a former trade analyst in the state Agriculture Department and later Minnesota secretary of state, said her speeches spoke from the heart and resonated with farm families. "She was a giant," said Ritchie. "She was the most eloquent public speaker that I've known."

Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed Jim Nichols agriculture commissioner in 1982. Nichols said Perpich urged him to appoint Kanten assistant commissioner, which he did.

"Anne Kanten: Leaders wary of farm activist," read a Minneapolis Tribune headline that year.

Nichols said Kanten was a caring person with great management skills. Working with a good friend, Lou Anne Kling, she recruited more than 100 people, largely farm wives, who acted as mediators between farmers and the banks that were trying to foreclose on them. Nichols said 10,000 farmers went through the program, which still exists.

Her husband died in 2014. She is survived by sons Kent Kanten of Milan, Minn., and Dr. Erik Kanten of Crookston; daughter Becky Kanten-McCoy of White Bear Lake, and nine grandchildren. The farm went to Kent, who has now turned it over to his sons. The family hopes to hold a public memorial service next year after the pandemic eases.

Staff librarian John Wareham provided research for this report.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224