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REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. – For more than 20 years, political hopefuls have made a beeline to FarmFest, a sprawling ag trade show where, amid the combine and tractor displays, farmers can vet for themselves the candidates vying for their votes.
As gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson put it earlier: Farmers have the best “B.S. meter” around.
“It’s very important to come see them in person,” said organic livestock grower DeEtta Bilek said. “It’s very different from hearing them on the radio or on TV.”
Bilek, 67, drove three hours from Aldrich for just that purpose. She attended the FarmFest Senate candidate forum to suss out which candidate was most knowledgeable about agriculture policy. Farmers, after all, have to abide by both state and federal regulations in the day-to-day operations of their business.
She singled out Republican Senate candidate Mike McFadden for his performance and said she plans to vote for him in next week’s primary. She made sure to buttonhole him afterward to talk with him about her farming business. “I told him he could have used the word ‘organic’ during the forum,” she said afterward.
Farmers from across the state come to the three-day event looking for what’s new in agriculture technology and equipment. But for nearly 25 years, FarmFest also has offered a full menu of political events. The forums for state governor, U.S. Senate and Congress are part of candidates’ final sprint before the primary, which determines who moves on to the general election.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Al Franken faced off against his would-be challengers in a forum that wound up producing nearly as much agreement as opposition. It was the first time the Democratic incumbent appeared alongside McFadden and other rivals: state Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka; Iraq war veteran David Carlson, another Republican, and Independence Party candidate Kevin Terrell.
They fielded questions on everything from rail congestion caused by crude oil shipments to labeling of genetically modified foods and energy policy.
On that front, the candidates agreed that developing renewable energy sources is critical in Minnesota. If forum attendees were hoping to see the front-runners bare their teeth, they were disappointed. On at least three occasions, Franken and McFadden, the GOP-endorsed candidate, said they agreed with each other on issues.
Charles Priebe, a retired farmer from Waseca, said most of the candidates seemed indistinguishable from one another.
“They’re all singing the same song, just different singers,” the 71-year-old said. “They all say they want to reduce [regulators’] influence, they’re all in favor of the Keystone pipeline and energy independence.”
Standing in a tent after polishing off a fair food staple — pork chop on a stick — Priebe said that these days, the trade show’s draw aren’t the gleaming tractors or heavy farm equipment. It’s the political forums.
He wants to support candidates who will help ease what he calls the federal government’s overreach in Minnesota agriculture.
“Farmers are already dealing with the wet weather and markets. The federal government shouldn’t make things harder,” he said.
State Sen. Gary Dahms, a Republican who represents FarmFest’s host town of Redwood Falls, said this is an important venue for political contenders.
Sporting a sticker for congressional candidate state Sen. Torrey Westrom, Dahms milled around the forum talking with attendees. He said candidates hoping to win over farmers need to “get out, shake hands and get in their environment.”