RED LAKE FALLS, Minn. -- Trade and health care dominated the conversation during U.S. Sen. Tina Smith’s tour stop at the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers in Red Lake Falls.
Smith, D-Minn., visited with farmers Monday, Aug. 12, as part of a Minnesota listening tour that began earlier in the day in East Grand Forks and concluded in Thief River Falls that night.
Smith is on the road in northwest Minnesota to gather information about the state’s housing shortage and to talk to farmers about the economic and trade challenges they are facing. About 25 farmers from across northwest Minnesota, including Crookston, Roseau and Warren, gathered at the MAWG shop in Red Lake Falls to share their concerns with Smith.
“It’s wonderful for me to get out of Washington and be here in Minnesota,” Smith said. “I am so pleased to serve on the Agriculture Committee. It feels like a really important time to dive in on the agricultural issues. My mission here today is to hear what’s on your mind.”
Trade is at the top of the list, farmers said.
“Exports are the lifeblood of American agriculture,” said Tim Dufault, a Crookston farmer and Minnesota Wheat Research and Promotion Council board member. China is the largest export market for U.S. agricultural products, Dufault said. In 2017, for example, the U.S. exported $23.8 billion of agricultural goods, more than 17 percent of its agricultural products, he noted.
When trade slows, as it has since the tariffs were imposed by China, there is a ripple effect, Dufault said.
“It’s not just the farmers who are impacted by the trade, it’s main street,” he said. “Agriculture matters to everybody.”
President Donald Trump doesn’t appear to understand the severe effect that the tariffs have on farmers, Smith said.
“I think he believes these tariffs are going to change the behavior of China," said Smith, adding that it is difficult to speculate on the outcome of the tariffs. “The thing about China is you never know, something could happen and the president might decide to declare the tariffs history and move on."
Dufault also lamented the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between several countries including Japan, Canada and Singapore.
“We’re sad we’re out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he said.
However, the United States Mexico Canada Agreement still is on the table and its ratification has potential to improve trade, Dufault said.
“Let’s get it done,” he said.
“I’m a little bit more optimistic about the USMCA,” Smith said. “I believe the Democrats and the Republicans in the House want to find agreement."
She plans to continue to communicate to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi the importance to Minnesota farmers of ratifying the agreement, she said.
Access to affordable health care is another challenge farmers face, said Kevin Leiser, a farmer from Fertile, who noted that his health care insurance premiums are more than $15,000 annually.
“We’re to the point, ‘Do you keep the health care or do you keep farming?" Leiser told Smith.
“That is the No. 1 thing people ask me about, the question of health care," said Smith, adding she is working across the aisle on health care issues, such as the increasing cost of insulin. She and Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., introduced a bill called Emergency Access to Insulin Act to address that.
Smith’s listening tour continued Tuesday, Aug. 13, with planned stops in towns including Thief River Falls, Hallock and Roseau. On Wednesday, Aug. 14, she plans to tour the Northwest Angle.