Retired longtime Farmers Union president talks about rural, farming life
MAPLEWOOD, Minn.--Doug Peterson, the recently retired president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, is one of the last of his kind: a prairie populist and rural Renaissance man. He has been a farmer, artist, teacher, football and gymnastics coach, le...
MAPLEWOOD, Minn.-Doug Peterson, the recently retired president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, is one of the last of his kind: a prairie populist and rural Renaissance man. He has been a farmer, artist, teacher, football and gymnastics coach, legislator and for the past 14 years head of the state's second-largest farm organization.
"I'm a dead breed," Peterson, 68, joked during an interview on his last day in office at the Farmers Union headquarters in Maplewood on Dec. 30.
As he removed his paintings from the office walls, he wanted to clear up some misconceptions that his "city cousins" have about farming and advise his fellow Democrats about what it will take to win back rural voters who helped Donald Trump win the presidency and Republicans take control of Congress and the Minnesota Legislature last fall.
"The most common misunderstanding city folks have is about what it takes to make a living on a farm today, the tremendous amount of land you need, the technology that makes it possible for one farmer to run 2,000 acres," he said. "When I started farming (in 1981), I bought a used combine for $2,600. Today a good, used combine probably costs $200,000 plus."
Thirty years ago, Peterson and his family were able to make a living on the 309-acre farm that his Swedish immigrant grandparents first rented near Madison in western Minnesota in 1933. It is where he and his wife, Elly, still live. But now, he said, many farms that size are economically unsustainable.
The good news for farmers is the development of corn, soybean and other herbicide-resistant grains that require little or no cultivation, he said.
"I can farm more land if I don't have to cultivate it," he said. "And farmers readily accept other technological changes" that enable them to farm more efficiently.
CONNECTING PRODUCTS TO PEOPLE
For metro area consumers, that means farmers are producing more and cheaper food.
"Consumers expect a high-quality product with a low price tag, and we've been able to do that consistently for years with fewer farmers," Peterson said.
A second big change in agriculture that Peterson pushed is the growing "farm to table" movement that connects farmers, cooks and consumers.
About 10 years ago, Peterson came up with the idea for "Minnesota Cooks," a Farmers Union-sponsored day at the Minnesota State Fair in which chefs and cooks demonstrate their favorite recipes with locally produced foods they serve at their restaurants.
That bore the Emmy Award-winning TV show "Farm Fresh Food Trip," in cooperation with Twin Cities Public Television.
"Minnesota Cooks" gave chefs not only a chance to demonstrate their cooking skills but, more importantly, a platform for telling audiences "why it's important to think about where your food comes from," said St. Paul chef Lenny Russo, owner of the recently closed Heartland restaurant in Lowertown and leading proponent of "farm to market" in the region.
Although Peterson and the Farmers Union didn't create the locally grown food movement, they certainly advanced it, said Russo.
100 IDEAS, LOADS OF PASSION
While Minnesota's farm population has steadily declined the past half-century, membership in the Farmers Union under Peterson has slowly grown each year to more than 14,000 today.
"We have been a big-tent organization," he said. "We have people on 10 acres and people on 10,000 acres. We work with Hmong farmers, have some urban farmers and some consumer members that believe in farm to table."
Although the MFU is "left-leaning" and has a reputation as representing small farmers, he said its policies are nonpartisan.
Kevin Paap, president of the larger, 30,000-member Minnesota Farm Bureau, said he didn't view Peterson as a rival.
"As a farmer, one of the things you learn quite early is working together works. ... Doug and I worked together on issues a whole lot more than we worked against each other," Paap said.
The non-profit Farmer's Union also sells insurance through the Farmers Union Insurance Agency and operates other businesses, such as Greenview, a company with 600 employees that maintains Minnesota highway rest stops.
The 75-year-old Farmers Union has been influential in shaping state and national agriculture policies for decades.
"When I was elected, I told people that I have 100 ideas. Some of them ain't going to be worth anything, but I tell you what: Three or four might be pretty good," said Peterson, the group's second-longest-serving president.
He said he hired staff and built the capacity to implement those ideas. Peterson also put the Farmers Union's shaky finances "back on solid ground," said Bruce Miller, membership and outreach director.
Peterson also has inspired farmers with his fiery leadership style, said Steve Read, the Rice County Farmers Union president from Nerstrand.
"Doug is an old-school Farmer-Labor progressive... in the mold of Floyd B. Olson and the leaders of the Grange," he said, referring to Minnesota's famed populist governor and the 19th-century movement that organized farmers against monopolistic railroads and grain elevators. "His passion comes from his heart."
Read recalled a White House meeting a few years ago in which a presidential aide was lecturing an auditorium full of farmers about nutrition policies.
"Doug interrupted her and said, 'For the cost of an aircraft carrier or a submarine, we could provide free breakfast and lunch for every student in America for many years.' The place erupted," he said. "He wasn't being disruptive. He just called them out on what he believes."
Peterson also helped inform people on U.S. farm policy as secretary of the National Farmers Union, and he made farmers' voices heard beyond the nation's borders.
In 2015, the Vatican invited him to Rome to express the organization's support for Pope Francis' encyclical on "Food, Faith and Farming." While there, he said, he also advocated for expanding the document to include a "vision for family farms feeding the world."
In one of his final acts as president last month, Peterson returned the Vatican to meet Pope Francis and hear him bless the group's family farm proposal. During that audience, he gave Francis a "humble clay chalice" crafted by a Dawson, Minn., potter. For Peterson, a Catholic, "that was a big deal."
RURAL DEMOCRAT GIVES ADVICE
Doug Peterson said he was disappointed but not discouraged by the results of the November election, in which most of rural Minnesota voted Republican.
"Rural people rose up because they didn't like what was going on," he said. "They felt disenfranchised, like people in power weren't listening to them."
Peterson said metro DFLers didn't seem to understand that rural people want to "live, work, be educated and raise your children where you live. Rural people are place people; they don't like to lose their connection to the land." And metro DFLers seemed more preoccupied with big-city issues, such as mass transit and urban poverty.
Democrats could win back rural voters, he said, but they must get out of the cities, listen to those voters, "and stop telling them what they need."
"There are still a lot of socially progressive people out there. But do they want to have big government, big money and big business run over them? No, nobody wants that," he said.
Peterson was born a Farmers Union member. His parents started sending him to the organization's youth camps when he was a child. He also is a lifelong DFLer, as was his father, Harry Peterson, who served in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1964 to 1974.
Following in his father's footsteps, Doug Peterson was elected to the House in 1990 and served six terms. Focusing on farm issues, he was the chief author of Minnesota's first ethanol bill in 1991 and sponsored or cosponsored every renewable fuels bill during his 12-year tenure. His son, Aaron, was elected to his father's House seat in 2002 and held it through 2008.
BACK TO THE FARM
Born in Madison, Peterson grew up on the family farm and attended a one-room country school. He earned a bachelor's degree in art and played football at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. After graduating, he taught art and coached football at Glencoe High School until 1981, when he returned to Madison to run the family farm.
He quit farming and rented out his cropland in 2000, two years before he was elected Farmers Union president. Although they no longer tilled the soil or raised livestock, he and Elly left their St. Paul apartment every weekend and returned to the farm.
"I relish the fact that I can go back to the farm that my father was on," he said.
Peterson plans to retire permanently to the farm. He wants to spend his time painting and doing other artwork, as well as hunting and fly fishing.
Like other rural folks, he said, "we just want a simple life."