It had already been a big month for Gary Wertish, even before he began a string of 16-hour days spent steering caffeine-seeking State Fair visitors to the maple cream nitro cold press coffee at the Farmers Union booth/coffee shop.
In a few weeks’ time, Wertish has achieved uncharacteristic visibility as president of the Minnesota Farmers Union — uncharacteristic both because he’s a soft-spoken fellow not given to attention-getting agitation, and because not many rural Americans have been vocal in finding fault with President Donald Trump.
It started at Farmfest on Aug. 7, when Wertish faced U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and leveled respectful but blunt criticism of the trade war with China that is depriving Minnesota farmers of a key market. He got national notice for telling Perdue that Trump’s “go-it-alone approach” to pressuring China is inflicting “devastating damage” on both farmers and rural communities.
The joke that Perdue cracked that day gave Wertish another opening.
“What do you call two farmers in a basement? … A whine cellar,” the ag secretary said, slapping the table in amusement that was not widely shared by his audience of financially stressed farmers.
“It was very insensitive,” Wertish scolded when asked for a comment by HuffPost. “He doesn’t understand what farmers are dealing with, and he’s the head of the Department of Agriculture.”
“This is coming from somebody who’s never had soil under his fingernails or grease on his hands,” Wertish said on MSNBC, apparently referring to Trump. “This is someone who’s really disconnected from the farm and really has no idea of the struggles the farmers are going through.”
That much national exposure would be heady stuff for some. But Wertish seemed his usual low-key self when I met him at his fair booth’s newly covered back porch Wednesday, before the crowds swarmed in to order the 2018 fair’s star culinary attraction, the Farmers Union/Birchwood Cafe heirloom tomato and sweet corn BLT on a Kernza focaccia bun. (This year, you can have it with a fried egg! And top it off with blueberry key lime pie!)
Decrying Trump’s trade war with China as it lumbers into its 18th month amounts to just doing his job, Wertish said. “If we’re not going to speak up now, when so many farmers are hurting, what are we in these [farm organization] positions for?”
One might observe that criticizing Republicans is nothing new for the Farmers Union. It’s no coincidence that its State Fair operation sits adjacent to the DFL Party’s booth on Dan Patch Avenue. The Farmers Union has been the association of choice for left-leaning farmers since it was established in Minnesota in 1918. Several previous MFU presidents, including Wertish’s predecessor Doug Peterson, had also served stints as DFL legislators.
But Trump fared so well in greater Minnesota in the 2016 election, carrying 78 of the state’s 87 counties, that it’s fair to assume that a goodly share of Farmers Union members voted for the Republican president — and that Wertish, a lifelong farmer from Renville and former aide to U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, would be reluctant to attack him. He was comparatively quiet during his first two years at the Farmers Union helm.
It may be an indication of shifting political sentiment in rural Minnesota that Wertish is no longer reticent. He denies that presidential politics are behind his trade war critique.
“Politically, we’re right in the middle,” he said of the Minnesota Farmers Union. “We have members in both parties. Making a living on the farm, getting a good price so you can have a good income, that’s not a partisan issue.”
His objection to Trump’s China tariffs is not with the president’s intentions, he said. Farmers generally agree that an effort is needed to convince China to play fair with other nations on intellectual property, currency valuation and other trade matters.
“But you need to work with a coalition of countries to get China to reform,” he said. “Going it alone, the president has boxed himself into a corner and doesn’t have a way to get out of it. This is turning into long-term pain for our farmers and rural communities.”
The Chinese market that U.S. farmers spent their own checkoff dollars to build has likely been permanently lost, he said, and “our credibility is shot with other countries. … I don’t care what party you belong to. This is not good for the country.”
He said he’s sounding an alarm now not because an election is looming, but to pressure Trump to resume negotiations with China and back away from tariffs. He’s not pleading for more federal bailout payments for farmers, he added. Last year, the Trump administration sent $12 billion to farmers to soften the blow to their bottom lines that tariffs caused. In May this year, the president promised another $16 billion. Wertish said those payments are bound to be resented by other Americans who are also hurting because of tariffs but are getting no special relief.
“We need decent prices, not payments,” Wertish said. “Farmers just want their markets back.”
He’ll be peddling that message along with cold-press coffee and lavender lemonade this week. Other farm organizations, including the larger Farm Bureau, are also out in force at the State Fair. But more than most, the Farmers Union emphasizes what fairgoers seem to like best — food. Its coffee shop and its 17-year-old Minnesota Cooks program, which will be dispensing free samples of Minnesota-sourced cuisine in Dan Patch Park from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, have become foodie magnets.
Wertish’s pitch: Come to the Farmers Union Coffee Shop for the BLTs. Linger to learn about what Trump’s trade war is doing to the farmers who raise the pork and grow the lettuce, tomatoes and grain. And think about what can be done to assure that Minnesota farmers don’t suffer crippling collateral damage.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and an occasional columnist. She is at email@example.com.