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Farmers ask Ellison for accountability

Farm Town Hall, owatonna, farms, farmers, big foods
Ryan Perez, of COPAL, spoke about the effort to organize Latino communities across Minnesota. He said farm workers from those communities are being harmed the most by the “giant mega-food corporations and processing corporations,” and of the need for building partnerships. Staff photo by Kay Fate
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

If there was a word for the day, it was “accountable.”

Nearly every person who spoke during an event billed as “Rural Voices, Rural Power: A Candidate Townhall,” asked for – and in some cases, demanded – accountability.

The Land Stewardship Action Fund sponsored the event held Saturday afternoon on the Trom farm, northeast of Blooming Prairie.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a townhall without a politician: Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison was the one answering questions. He left with a calendar filled with meetings.

“We have enough laws – I think they need to be updated – but we have enough laws to make this economy fairer and better and more competitive and more supportive of the small farmers,” he said. “Our economy should be supporting small farmers, ranchers and growers – and regulating the big ones.”

Also present was Thom Peterson, Minnesota ag commissioner. Several state and local candidates from the area were there to listen.

Instead, people and organizations who share the mission of the Land Stewardship Project – to take care of farmland, promote sustainable agriculture and develop healthy communities – did the talking.

Front lines

That included people like Sonja Trom Eayrs, a granddaughter of the man who built the farm where the event was held, and where she also grew up. She and her five siblings now operate the farm.

“I’d like to welcome you to the front lines,” she said. “We’ve been fighting large corporate interests for years,” including when a factory dairy operation was proposed for Dodge County.

Their own conservation efforts include wide buffer strips along the drainage ditch, hundreds of trees planted on the farm, and not using manure from factory farms.

Eayrs said the family has been harassed and intimidated for years for speaking out against big ag. There are 12 swine factory farms in a three-mile radius of their farm – what she calls a pyramid scheme, with multinational corporations at the top, integrators who own the hogs, and contract growers at the bottom.

“We have a serious problem in rural Minnesota,” Eayrs said. “We have a number of large factory farms, and it’s a reflection of the over-sized power of multinational corporations that control rural areas, control our food supply, and that are hollowing out our beautiful rural communities.

“Concentration in the marketplace and failure to enforce anti-trust laws means the wealth is going upstream,” she said. “It’s created a power imbalance.”

Ellison told the group he’d like to see a right-to-repair law and a price-gouging law and said there’s a new awareness the markets are too highly concentrated, and too few people control too much.

Jim Gardner, of Spring Grove, offered another example. The 26-year-old and his wife are poultry farmers.

“We sell poultry to families, and that’s shocking to some people,” he said. “When our culture believes that family-scale farming is impossible, we have a problem. Our only possibility for a future in agriculture is to sell direct to consumers; we don’t have the resources to compete at a large scale.”

Level the field

But Gardner said they’re facing challenges, through local zoning ordinances, through the poultry processing bottleneck.

He asked Ellison what the state could do to level the playing field for small farmers and independent small meat processors.

“We have a growing and strong anti-trust division, and our focus is agriculture,” Ellison said. “Our office is driven by complaints; what I want you to know is that you are being interfered with. I’m concerned with what you just shared. Not every law that’s on the books is Constitutional. Let’s get together and investigate it and see what we can do.”

Zoe Hollomon, a co-founder of the Midwest Farmers of Color Collective, said communities of color make up more than 20% of the Minnesota population, but less than 1% of the state’s farmers, “and that’s not because we don’t like to farm.”

It’s because of racial discrimination, and obstacles in access to land, training and technical assistance, capital, and political representation, Hollomon said.

About 75% of the state’s agriculture is “commodity-crop producing, heavily reliant on pesticides and chemical fertilizer, producing non-edible products,” she said. “Farmers of color understand the inter-dependence of nature and farming. Most of us started farming to grow food for our families and communities. We are practicing sustainable farming; we’re healing the soil and water; we’re growing chemical-free food and reducing climate burdens – and still, that other 75% is getting the majority of the resources.”

Accountability problem

Finally, she said, “we have a real accountability problem with big polluters in agriculture and energy, who are negatively impacting farmers of color, sustainable farmers and rural communities.”

Ellison, who is Black, said “the first people I ever met were farmers of color. My mother lived every single day of her life on a farm in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. There was a time when every brown-skinned person you met was involved with agriculture.”

He reiterated the need to stay in touch with his office, saying, “I believe that everybody has the right to food free of pesticides, the right to pursue their dream on the land. Let’s keep talking about it.”

Adam Muschler, of Winona County, told Ellison about the most recent fish kill. It happened in July, when 2,500 brown trout were found dead in Rush Creek, near Lewiston.

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the state averages 500 fish kills annually. Muschler said the MPCA rep “could think of one account of a polluter being held accountable.”

“In a state that raises tens of millions of dollars every year from fishing licenses, an attack on our fish and our clean water is an attack on our economy,” Muschler said, adding that 1,300 residents of his county “cannot safely drink the water out of their own tap, due to the dangerous nitrate levels.”

The story, Ellison responded, “is horrifying and deeply concerning, but I’ve got to tell you, I didn’t even know about it. I’ll take some responsibility for that, but we’ve got to build our communication out. There are Minnesota statutes that can hold folks to account.”

Also speaking were Janssen Hang, on behalf of the Hmong American Farmers Association; Ryan Perez, on behalf of COPAL, which is designed to bring Latinos together in Minnesota “in a community democracy that builds racial, gender, social and economic justice;” and Chris Peterson, an independent hog farmer from Clear Lake, Iowa.

Peterson has been doing advocacy work for 30 years.

“I fight the good fight, and I’ll do it until I’m no longer able to fight,” he said. “We’re after one thing: A state-wide building moratorium on factory farms. Isn’t enough enough?”

Ellison is running for re-election in November.

His GOP opponent, attorney Jim Schultz, was invited to Saturday’s event, but did not attend.

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