MORGAN, Minn. – I came to Farmfest seeking a read on trends in farming and farm-country politics. Jim Nichols obligingly provided both.
Nichols knows farming. His farm near Lake Benton produced the state’s top corn yield in 2016: 316 bushels per acre. The secret to high yields — and nitrate-free drinking water — is timely application of fertilizer, he says.
And Nichols knows politics. He was a DFL state senator for five years, state commissioner of agriculture for eight years, an unsuccessful but highly quotable candidate for the U.S. House (1982) and U.S. Senate (1990), and is, at age 72, a politically active elder statesman today.
That’s why I was glad for his company at Wednesday’s gubernatorial forum — the one and only time all five leading contenders from the two major parties would share a stage before Tuesday’s primary decides which two of them will advance to the Nov. 6 ballot.
Nichols volunteered an answer to one key question before the forum began: He’s supporting Erin Murphy for governor, he said. More about why in a moment.
Their admiration is evidently mutual. The DFL Party’s endorsee spotted and saluted Nichols from the Wick Buildings Farmfest Center stage as the ag commissioner “who took us through the farm crisis in the 1980s” and is advising her today.
Murphy did not draw a further parallel between today’s worrisome farm economy and the woes of the 1980s, when hundreds of foreclosures ripped farms out of Minnesota families’ hands. Perhaps with that crowd, she did not need to. Fear that another farm crisis is in the offing is already well-planted. Nichols shares it.
“The farm economy was in a weak position already” this spring after five straight years of low commodity prices, Nichols explained. Then came President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, bringing a 25 percent Chinese tariff on Minnesota’s top export crop, soybeans, and a host of other agricultural products.
“With a trade war, things can’t help but get worse,” Nichols said. The per-bushel price of soybeans is down 20 percent since the tariffs were first announced in April, he noted. That stands to reason: In recent years, China had been the customer for about 30 percent of the U.S. soybean crop.
If the trade war persists, prices will stay low for soybeans and erode for corn and other alternative crops Minnesota farmers plant, Nichols predicted. “You’re going to have a billion bushels [of soybeans] you can’t sell. It’s going in the bin. That’s going to hold prices down for a long time.”
He had a grim prediction: “In 1986, we had more grain in storage than at any other year on record. We could break that record next year.” The result for farmers’ ability to stay in business “may not be as bad as the 1980s,” since land prices have not collapsed — yet — as they did then. “But it’s not going to be pretty.” He knows small-town farm lenders who are opting for early retirement this year. It’s a bad sign, he said.
Nichols said what farmers need most from elected officials now is a willingness to pull out all the lawmaking stops to end the trade war. “Farmers are thinking this is only a problem this year. It will last a lot longer unless someone stands up to Donald Trump,” he said.
He looks first to Congress, but without much confidence. “Congress doesn’t do much. All they think about is getting reelected,” he said.
It’s telling to hear a DFL veteran like Nichols voice such cynicism. His neighbors’ disgust with politicians runs deeper than his, he said.
“People have given up on government. That’s why they voted for Donald Trump. They don’t expect government to do anything positive anymore. They think the politicians are all corrupt. Trump is not a good option, but they still view him as better than the politicians because he’s a businessman.”
Nichols holds that greater Minnesota does have better options — in St. Paul. “We need a Legislature and a governor in Minnesota who will challenge Donald Trump. I think it can happen,” he said. He thinks any of the three leading DFL candidates for governor — Murphy, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and Attorney General Lori Swanson — could fill that bill. (“Obviously, the Republicans aren’t going to challenge Trump,” he said.)
He particularly likes what he sees in Murphy. When he came to the Legislature several years ago to show legislators that not all farmers oppose Gov. Mark Dayton’s efforts to reduce nitrate levels in rural drinking water, he was surprised to find an ally in a legislator from St. Paul.
“Erin Murphy was right there, fighting for the governor’s bill and bringing other legislators to the table,” Nichols said. As a nurse by profession, “she understood water pollution, and she also understood the health effects of nitrate in drinking water.” (It’s a particular risk to infants.) “She didn’t have to get involved in that. But she did it because she’s smart and has a big heart.”
Heart matters, he said, because if the trade war does its worst to Minnesota agriculture, farmers and those who depend on them will look to state government for help — just as they did when Nichols was Gov. Rudy Perpich’s ag commissioner.
“Our state is going to have to help farmers through another crisis,” he said. “That’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s something we have to think about.”
In the 1980s, Nichols and Perpich led a bipartisan effort to avert foreclosures with farmer-lender mediation, provide ag-targeted property tax relief, seek new markets and step up ag-related research. My hunch is that plenty of voters in greater Minnesota remember those as meaningful state efforts during a dark time. And that they’d appreciate knowing that this year’s candidates are as willing as those of the 1980s to put state government on farmers’ side.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at email@example.com.