Farmers flock to ag forum
Senate candidates address rural issues
By Ashley H. Grant
REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. -- Minnesota's major U.S. Senate candidates aired their views on rural issues for the state's farmers on Tuesday.
Norm Coleman, the former big-city mayor, has tried hard to connect with rural voters in the early stages of the campaign, but he still carved out his own territory in a forum at the annual Farmfest event.
While his opponents -- Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, Ed McGaa of the Green Party and Jim Moore of the Independence Party -- called for investigating the practices of large agricultural businesses, Coleman had a different response when he was asked what he would do if he was the nation's agriculture czar for a day.
"I'd gut the federal milk-marketing system," he said.
The Depression-era system pays farmers more for their milk the farther their farms are from Eau Claire, Wis.
"Minnesota dairy farmers are at a huge disadvantage," Coleman said.
Coleman, a Republican, also stood apart on issues of technology, qualifying his support of biomass and biodiesel by stressing the state should continue using nuclear and other forms of energy. He also endorsed biotechnology -- genetically engineering improved crops -- more emphatically than his rivals.
"Biotechnology is a good thing," he said. "It's environmentally friendly."
Farmers slogged through Tuesday's pouring rain and ankle-deep mud to pack an enormous tent for the first forum, which included all four major parties' endorsed candidates. Farmfest bills itself as the largest outdoor agricultural event in the Midwest, with more than 40,000 producers expected to attend its three-day run of product exhibits, seminars, demonstrations and entertainment.
The crowd seemed equally split between Wellstone and Coleman supporters, with sporadic laughter and applause for McGaa and Moore.
Wellstone worried about farmers' liability if something goes wrong with genetically engineered crops. He said he would fight to make sure that companies producing engineered seeds are held responsible, not family farmers.
Environmental groups have sounded alarms about biotech research in recent years, and McGaa warned that mistakes would be made.
"I'm all for it as long as we can regulate it," he said. Moore agreed that there were some areas the federal government should monitor, but favored moving forward cautiously on the technology.
Wellstone said mandating the use of biodiesel and ethanol was "a no-brainer," that it was Minnesota's future.