DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — “Citizen Peterson” is ready to put some of his things in the Becker County Museum, but isn’t ready to relegate himself to history, yet.
Former U.S. House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., lost his district 53.4% to 39.9% to his challenger, Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-Minn., and left office in January.
He admits the change feels strange.
“I’m like, ‘I should be doing something,’” he said, chuckling. Peterson agreed to an interview, sitting in the desk he’s been using for 30 years in Washington. “It is a shock to your system, when you’ve been doing this for 30 years. Then all of a sudden, you’re not.”
His office desk has been moved to a temporary museum exhibit at the Becker County — a spot that holds a few of the Washington, D.C., office items — a desk, an elk he shot. A new $6.4 million museum to be built next door will hold papers and is expected to open in April 2022.
Looking for a role
When President Joe Biden was looking at Secretary of Agriculture candidates, some speculated they might tap Peterson. Peterson doesn’t say an offer was made.
“I told them that was not something I wanted to do,” Peterson said. “I’d just been in politics for 40 years. It’s different a little bit, down there, at the department.”
The plain-talking Peterson thinks USDA wouldn’t have been a good fit.
“I haven’t had a boss other than ‘the people’ since I was 23,” Peterson said. He thinks he might be “more helpful” outside the administration. He’s especially authoritative in certain enterprises — sugarbeets and dairy, for example — but hasn’t decided whether he wants to lobby for anything.
Peterson called Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack, as well as Robert Bonnie, deputy chief of staff for policy.
Peterson talked with them about a number of things, including the administration’s climate change initiatives. He said his two fellow Democrats told told him he should stay active in agriculture.
They assured him they’re “not going to do anything that the farmers don’t support and can’t live with.”
Pie in the sky
Peterson has told them climate protection policies cannot be “pie in the sky” and many advocates have “no clue about production ag.” He’s urged that whatever Vilsack and Bonnie come up with must be “something farmers want to do and can do. It’s not something you’re shoving down their throats. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to be successful.”
Trade war reparation money handed out by the Trump administration was not good in the long run, Peterson said. But the USDA has learned they can use the same Commodity Credit Corp. funding as a way to finance a “carbon bank” or direct payments to pay farmers to do practices.
“The problem is that the CCC doesn’t build them (spending) ‘baseline.’ They can do it on a one-year basis, but then they have to come up with new money the next year,” he said. “The question is going to be, I think, how do you convert that into a baseline in the farm bill that’s permanent, like the other parts of the farm bill. The money is there year-to-year and available.”
As to how money goes to farmers, Peterson said he thinks he could be helpful in gathering the disparate across the country, including the South, California and the Upper Midwest.
Peterson thinks he could have a role in gathering commodity and conservation groups to find farmer-friendly policies.
As an example, Peterson in December, after his election defeat, introduced a bill to increase acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program to 50 million acres. Under the current law, the USDA “may” increase the CRP to 27 million acres.
Peterson acknowledged there are livestock and grain industry critics of CRP but said the real choice might be mandates that are less palatable. He said proposals to require cover crops — to protect soil and save fertilizer — must accommodate crops like sugarbeets, harvested late and without time to establish cover crops.
There is nothing we do that puts more carbon into the soil other than CRP,” Peterson said. “Nothing close.”
House ag shifts
When Peterson was first elected to Congress in 1990, all of the Democrats on the agriculture committee represented big production agriculture districts. The 1994 election wiped out a bunch of them. The 2010 election wiped out most of the rest of them.
“I was the only one left. It’s a problem,” he said.
Today Republicans control all of the seats in Congress in “farm country,” especially in the Midwest. Current policies will largely stay intact until the farm bill expires in 2023, he said. A key issue is whether Democrats will retain control of the House.
Peterson said he has a good relationship with his successor, House Agriculture chairman Chairman David Scott, D-Ga.
“I’ve counseled (Democrats) not do anything radical, to support commercial agriculture,” Peterson said.
Just guessing, he thinks the most likely policy goal would be payment limitations. He’s avoided limiting support to small farmers.
“You’re picking winners and losers for no good policy reason, other than the size,” he said.
The ag committee had 47 members for many years.
“Against my advice, the leadership decided to increase the size of the committee to 53, so the Republicans could get more members,” he said. “Frankly, that was done so Fischbach could get on the ag committee.”
The Democrats have 27 slots to fill and the Republicans have 24.
Trouble is, Democrats “didn’t have enough people to fill the committee the way it was,” he said. Now, they’ve added “one of the most liberal members of Congress,” Rep. Ro Khanna, serving Silicon Valley of California.
“He has not one inch of his district has anything but concrete on it,” Peterson said.
Khanna had been “agitating me for the last two terms to get on the committee because he has an agenda to change agriculture and get rid of what we have,” Peterson said. “And they put him on. And they still have three slots left they haven’t filled.”
Further, Democrats have only seven members that are “permanent” on the committee.
“The rest of them are ‘temporary.’ They’re on other committees that are more important and are on ag because the leadership put them on there, but they are not building seniority," he said. “They have no standing on the committee, other than their vote. And this is a big problem.”
Peterson said he’s been “telling agriculture” for the past three terms that this lopsided shift toward Republican ag committee is a “growing problem for agriculture.”
“This is bad,” he said. “I was able to hold things together, keep things bipartisan. But I’m worried about what’s going to happen.”
On the Senate side, Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., will be joined by newcomers, including Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., a pastor and junior senator, onto the ag committee. Booker has introduced a bill to buy 32 million acres of land from willing sellers over 10 years, and grant it black farmers. Peterson thinks it is unlikely to pass.
Peterson gets occasional criticism for creating federal farm policies, including crop insurance, allowing large farms to become larger. Policies that have protected all farms, regardless of size were “there before me,” Peterson said.
“I didn’t allow it to be changed,” Peterson acknowledged, adding, “It’s dangerous enough to farm now the way it is. If you don’t have a backstop, it’s pretty hard.”
The majorities on the committee agreed with keeping those policies in place.
“It’ll be closer now, with who is on there,” he said.
When Peterson initially became chairman in 2007, he created the horticulture and organic subcommittee for specialty crops.
“I’m not against that at all,” he said. There is a market niche for organic and locally produced crops.
“But you can’t replace commercial agriculture with that,” he said. “You can’t scale that.”
He said the problem with organic is imports, which lack integrity, in a system that is difficult to police.
“The biggest problem is that USDA doesn’t control anything other than meat,” he said. The Food and Drug Administration controls fish and other crops, and doesn’t have a sufficient budget.
“If I had my way I’d toughen up inspection at the border, toughen up the FDA going into these countries and inspecting what they’re doing,” he said.
If the U.S. had to rely on small and specialty producers, he said he thinks maybe 10% of Americans would eat today. “Where would we get the food? From Brazil? That’s not realistic.”
Those 194 boxes
In March 2021, the Becker County Museum will start construction on the new building. It will hold bills Peterson passed, correspondence. Taxidermy. Photos he took on trips across the country.
Peterson expects relationships with Minnesota State University Moorhead, where he received his accounting degree, and the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul.
He shipped 194 boxes of office materials and items back to Minnesota, including 154 boxes to the museum, and 40 to his home. Some items were too big to put in storage.
Becky Mitchell, executive director of the museum, said the Peterson materials will make a nice feature for the new 30,000-square-foot structure, which is scheduled to open in April 2022.
“The agriculture research will be amazing,” she said. The museum made their research library, which will offer the opportunity to sit at Peterson’s desk, as well as legislative artifacts, she said.
Their collection includes dozens of awards and recognitions in storage.
“I’ve got a big, huge pig and a big, huge cow, and I’ve the Farm Bureau ‘Golden Plow Award,’ which is a golden one-bottom plow. All that stuff," he said.
Peterson tells a story about running into a former constituent at the grocery store. She asked him how he reacted to the Jan. 6 break-in at the U.S. Capitol. They were surprised to hear him say he wasn’t there.
“People think I’m still in office,” Peterson said. “That’s how much they pay attention to politics — most people. It’s not the first thing on their mind.”
Peterson hopes says he’ll be in touch with agriculture. He notes that his father, Lauren Peterson, who died in 2018 at age 98, retired from farming and spent more than 20 years selling farm equipment. Peterson said a “buddy” in the implement business has suggested he might do the same.
“I’m actually looking at . . . I might consider it,” he said.
He expects to finally have time to do some bow-hunting for deer on his property near Thief River Falls. He’ll hunt grouse. Bear. Maybe ducks in Canada, if they let him cross the border.
Peterson, who led an ad hoc rock band called the Second Amendments in Washington, D.C., said he’s brought home all eight guitars and five amplifiers.
“The problem is there’s no venue to play in,” he said. “Everything is shut down.”
He has children in Tennessee, and in Minneapolis and Bagley, in Minnesota. Peterson is taking his time figuring out his next step.
“I don’t need a job,” he said. “I don’t want to put myself in a stressful situation; I don’t need that. I’ve been through that.”