Redwood Falls, Minn. -- Republican gubernatorial hopefuls appearing in an agricultural forum at the annual FarmFest trade show said they would be advocates for farmers by promoting international trade of Minnesota crops and livestock, improving infrastructure to move goods and easing environmental regulations they said harm farmers.
With a week left before the August primary, the candidates are trying to woo farmers attending the three-day event in southwestern Minnesota.
In the hour-long forum, candidates offered their positions on topics that included positions the labeling of genetically-modified foods, distribution of state dollars to rural counties and funding of agriculture education programs.
Participating Tuesday were Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, former House Speaker Kurt Zellers and business executive Scott Honour who is running for elected office for the first time.
Notably absent Tuesday was DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who declined to participate in the forum. Dayton is expected to attend FarmFest Thursday, but that didn't stop the Republican candidates from denouncing his absence from the gubernatorial forum.
"This is one of the biggest and best agricultural outlets in the states," Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said. "He should be here with you today."
In an emailed statement, the Dayton campaign said that the governor would partake in six debates beginning after Labor Day once a GOP nominee is determined.
"Six debates are near the top of the usual range for a Minnesota statewide election and more than in virtually every other state," said Dayton's campaign manager Katharine Tinucci in the statement. "We believe they will provide Minnesotans with good opportunities to hear and compare the candidates’ views.
Tuesday's forum was well-attended and some of the candidates touted their rural roots in an effort to woo farmers.
Seifert, who grew up in nearby Marshall, appeared to have home-court advantage eliciting the most applause from the crowd.
"I’ve stayed my entire life here," he said. "I’m not going anywhere. If I go to St. Paul, I’d be visiting there not living there."
There was little disagreement between the candidates in the question-and-answer forum. On the labeling of genetically-modified foods, they said that it's important to have a blanket policy rather than a state-by-state patchwork of laws. That approach, they said, would make it costly for Minnesota food companies such as Cargill Inc. Hormel Foods Corp.
The candidates pledged to promote the state's agricultural industry abroad. Zellers pointed to growing demand in China, a country with a burgeoning middle-class but a lack of arable land. The candidates also said they would invest in the state's roads and bridges to help facilitate the movement of the state's agricultural products.
Greg Bartz, a 60-year-old corn and soybean farmer from Sleepy Eye, a town 30 miles southeast of here, came to the trade show specifically to attend the forum. Who the governor appoints as agency heads is important, he said, because farmers have to abide by state rules in the day-to-day operations of their business.
He thought the Republican candidates did well in Tuesday's forum but he singled out Seifert for his performance.
"He seemed to be the most knowledgeable and more connected to the issue," he said.
He declined to say who he plans to vote for next Tuesday, but said the forum cemented his views on the GOP candidates. "I've been following the race and I think the forum probably reinforced my thoughts that they are similar."