Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union since 2002, is retiring at the end of the year. Before leading the 14,000-member farm organization, Peterson served in the Minnesota Legislature for 12 years. During the 1990s, he authored much of the legislation related to development and growth of the ethanol industry, which came to be known as the Minnesota Model. Peterson, 68, owns a farm near Madison in western Minnesota, where he raised his family. He spoke last week about the importance of family farms and reflected on his 40-year involvement in farm policy. The conversation has been edited and summarized for space and clarity.
Q: What is the biggest misunderstanding that nonfarmers have about agriculture?
A: The knowledge of what it takes to get a crop to market. People can’t get their arms around the fact that a combine costs more than a house. The other piece is the amount of work that farming involves. I don’t hold that against nonfarmers because people are busy and have lots of things going on, but some of them have this romantic version of picture book farming the way it was done decades ago. There have been huge advances in technology, and it doesn’t come down the road for free. Profit margins are thin, and I just don’t think farmers get a fair share of the price.
Q: What is the biggest change you have seen in the past 14 years with the Farmers Union?
A: Clean water is one of the biggest issues that has really moved quite quickly. It runs the gamut from buffer strips to nitrates and wildlife habitat. I don’t know if research has actually been able to keep up and deliver tools that farmers can use. And the litigious nature of what’s happening with environmental groups looking toward farmers as a major cause. I don’t know if we should be blamed for 100 percent of the problem. We’ve just been producing crops and trying to move forward with best management practices. It’s difficult when you’ve got these spikes and these huge rain events and being able to control the water and hold the water. That ends up being one of the big challenges of the next farming generation. The solutions have to be sustainable, and by that I mean sustaining an income level so you can afford to farm the next year.
Q: How about changes in consumer behavior?
A: The other thing that’s changed really quickly is local foods. That wasn’t talked about very much 15 years ago. Now if you’re not doing local in a restaurant, or addressing it some way in your ingredients label, or talking about it or advertising or doing a media campaign about fresh and local, you’re not going to have much of a product to sell. Consumers are demanding transparency. They want to know where something’s from and what’s in it, and that’s a good thing.
Q: The past year has seen a number of proposed mergers and acquisitions for Big Ag, such as Monsanto and Bayer, Syngenta and ChemChina, and DuPont and Dow. What do you make of that?
A: The concentration of markets is scary to me, especially the idea of Syngenta being acquired by ChemChina. It affects the sovereignty of an American farmer being able to control his own destiny when you have a foreign communist government owning sources of seed and fertilizer and pesticides and dictating choices and prices to farmers because of lack of competition.
Q: How do you see the future of the family farm?
A: Minnesota is lucky that it has strong laws against foreign or corporate ownership of farmland. But lots of states have changed their laws recently to embrace this terminology that we have a right to farm. That is fooling the audience and allows larger corporate farmers to take away direct farm ownership from families when land transfers. It’s wordsmithing. It’s giving license for nonfamily farms to compete against family farmers and move to more of a corporate-owned farm that’s managed from afar. If you look at what family farms have given this country, you get food, fuel and fiber. The food is relatively safe, abundant and affordable. Farmers only receive about 18 cents of the food dollar. That’s a pretty damn good deal for America.
Q: Would corporations owning more farms make them more efficient?
A: I don’t think we can sustain a corporate model. Corporate owners would be able to control prices and what farmers plant and when they plant. So you end up with a concentrated market ... and consumers would pay more.
Q: What is a better system?
A: My wish is very simple: I want technology to provide better food and a better price for farmers. I want the research to be sure that when we grow the things we need for national security, that it’s environmentally sound and takes care of people at the same time.
Q: What are your plans for retirement?
A: I’ve done a lot of artwork in my life and want to do more. My wife and I plan to do some traveling. And fly fishing. I’ve been involved in farm policy since 1976 and I’m going to step back, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t still speak out about injustices that I see.