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U.S. Senator discusses northern Minnesota agricultural issues with local farmers

It's not often a U.S. Senator consults with farmers in Carlton County, but that's exactly what happened at the Thomson Town Hall Friday morning. Bright and early, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar met with close to 50 people at a meeting hosted by the C...

Speaking with Mark Thell
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar speaks with Mark Thell, Minnesota Carlton County Farmers Union president, and Klobuchar staffer Andy Martin. Contributed photo

It's not often a U.S. Senator consults with farmers in Carlton County, but that's exactly what happened at the Thomson Town Hall Friday morning.

Bright and early, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar met with close to 50 people at a meeting hosted by the Carlton County chapter of the Minnesota Farmers Union.

"Carlton County agriculture is one of the best kept secrets in the state," said Mark Thell, president of the county chapter of the Minnesota Farmers Union. "You don't find large tracks like in the prairie areas, and typically the climate and temperature here doesn't allow corn and soy beans to produce."

Topics at Friday's meeting ranged from wolves to the U.S. Postal Service to beginning farm and organic programs, as well as health care and the upcoming farm bill. While not everyone at the meeting was a farmer - Thell said there was at least one person from Occupy Duluth and several from Food and Water Watch - nearly everyone there was concerned with issues related to agriculture.

With the recent federal delisting of the gray wolf, management is shifting to Minnesota. Right now, Thell said in an interview on his farm Monday, the whole situation is essentially in flux as management transitions. The farmers union and Klobuchar both supported the delisting, but there's a lot of work to do now.

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"The farmers union will work with the Department of Natural Resources to hopefully do some trapping to control problem areas," Thell said, noting that having a hunting season for wolves is not the most effective way to manage the carnivore. "I know of one farmer in northern Wisconsin who lost 36 calves in the spring. They're around here, but we haven't had numbers like that."

Thell and his wife Terri own 240 acres near Wrenshall where they raise grass-fed cattle, pigs, chickens and some vegetables in a manner consistent with organic farming. He credits lots of high-tensile fencing and the fact that they rotate their cattle almost daily for their minimal wolf encounters.

The subject of looming cuts to the U.S. Postal Service in Minnesota was an issue that will affect rural customers in a dramatic fashion. There are plans to close a number of rural post offices in Northland, as well as every distribution center in the state except for the Twin Cities, including Duluth.

Rural residents will have to drive farther to mail items they can't just throw a stamp on, and deliveries of necessities ranging from prescription drugs to farm machine parts will be dramatically delayed.

And then there is the issue of thousands and thousands of broilers, day-old chicks that have been delivered in the mail to farm families for decades.

"The hatcher ships them on a Wednesday and they arrive in the Wrenshall post office on Thursday," Thell said. "If it takes a second day, there's a 30 percent death rate and those that do survive don't thrive."

Then there's the question of a terrorist attack, something like the anthrax-tainted envelopes mailed to several news media offices and five U.S. Senators that killed five people and infected 17 in 2001. An attack like that in the Twin Cities, Thell noted, would cripple the postal service in the entire state if the only remaining distribution centers were located there.

Terri Thell said another issue near and dear to her heart - as a person who sells meat from animals raised on strict organic diets - is labeling for the origin of food.

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"[Sen. Klobuchar] said it's something she's really worked on, but it's not where she wants it," said Terri, explaining that fruits and vegetables are now labeled for origin as well as clothing, but meat still lacks any identification for country of origin.

"We did pass country-of-origin labeling in the farm bill, but the difficulty with Congress is that they will pass something so it's authorized, but not release the funding so an agency can get to work on the program," she said. "It's typically two years after something passes that it begins to take effect."

University of Minnesota Extension Educator Troy Salzer said Sen. Klobuchar was very connected with the aspects of agriculture and its economic impacts on Minnesota.

"Understanding that Minnesota is the sixth largest ag gross dollar generator [was impressive]," he said, adding that Klobuchar noted that agriculture has really minimized the overall economic impact and aspects of the recession. "Not only are there a lot of agriculture products in the state, there are also a lot of ag processing in the state, which was definitely a part of the reason Minnesota has done as well as it's done."

Salzer said the Senator expressed surprised to have so many farmers present at an 8 am meeting.

"She thought there would maybe be six or eight farmers or people interested in agriculture that time of day," he said. "To have such a large group express an interest in our local ag economy and politics was a neat observation."

Mark Thell said Klobuchar left her audience feeling like they'd had a good back-and-forth exchange with Minnesota's senior senator.

"She's unreal," he said, telling how the senator's staff wanted her to go at one point and she insisted on staying until everyone's questions were answered. "She said she likes early morning meetings, because she can really carry on a dialogue with people because the folks who come are the ones that think an issue is really important to them, they're not just rabble rousing."

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For more information on the Farmers Union in Carlton County contact Mark Thell at 218-384-3878.

Mark and Terri Thell
Mark and Terri Thell take a break at their farm in rural Carlton County. Jana Peterson/ jpeterson@pinejournal.com

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