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Craig connects with farmers in the second district

Bill Sorg of Sorg Farms points out neighboring communities to congressional candidate Angie Craig. (photo by Maureen McMullen)

Editor's note: Reporter Maureen McMullen followed candidates Angie Craig and Jason Lewis on the campaign trail. Read about the Jason Lewis stop here

Rural broadband access, environmental policy and the 2018 farm bill were among the topics congressional candidate Angie Craig discussed with farmers Monday as part of her Supporting Family Farms tour.

She stopped at three family farms in Minnesota's 2nd District, which encompasses Goodhue, Dakota, Scott and Wabasha counties as well as parts of Washington and Rice counties.

The tour, Craig said, aimed to connect with families on small farms, whom she said play a critical role in the state's economy.

"This district has so many farms in it that I need to be prepared as its representative to know all the aspects of farming," she said. "I've spent 22 years in the private sector in the cities, I need to make sure that I know what the issues are, how I align with that, and how to fix the economy in Minnesota. When you look at this district, so much of it is townships and farmland, so these are the issues."

Congressional Candidate Angie Craig pets a calf on Sorg Farms in Hastings. (photo by Maureen McMullen)

Sorg Farms

Bill Sorg welcomed Craig to her first stop at Sorg Farms in Hastings. The family's history on the farm dates back more than a century, when Sorg's grandfather and great-grandfather purchased the land together. Today, Sorg works with his son Carl and brother Randy to produce dairy, beef, soybeans and corn.

Sorg discussed dwindling prices of corn, which currently sit below $3. Craig said she hopes to counter the effects of low crop prices by supporting the 2018 Farm Bill — perhaps her most contrasting stance with Republican opponent Jason Lewis.

"The growing seasons become longer, which means we have more bountiful crops, but the prices have continued to fall," she said. "If we want to encourage family farms that are handed down for generations like this one, we're going to have to make sure we have a strong safety net for our farmers."

Craig touts expanding markets for industries including agriculture by lifting the trade embargo with Cuba. Sorg agreed with establishing trade with Cuba, citing advice from former Vice President Hubert Humphrey: "Sell 'em everything they can't shoot back at you."

"You can't lose with Cuba — they don't have that much to export," Sorg said. "All you can do is help their people."

Sorg also expressed concern over restrictions on work visas for immigrants who work with agriculture in the U.S. His farm employs two workers from Mexico and one from South Africa. Sorg said he used to hire high school kids to help with production a few hours per week but struggled to fill the positions in recent years.

"We'd employ people nearby if they'd work," he said. "Nobody answers my advertisements anymore. The best crew I could get would be some energetic high school kids who sat in a classroom all day and have to do something that involves three hours every other night, and boy, we get a lot done."

Craig (left) discusses issues Steve (Center) and Jody Read face producing sheep milk cheese on Shepherd's Way Farm in Nerstrand.

Shepherd's Way

Craig's second stop led her to Shepherd's Way Farms in Nerstrand, where economies of scale, rural broadband access and reasonable environmental standards were at the forefront of discussion.

The farm is one of two in Minnesota to produce artisan cheese made from sheep's milk. Owners Jody and Steve Read struggled to rebuild their production after a 2004 arson fire destroyed animal housing and more than 500 sheep.

Although the farm bill would offer little assistance to farmers whose production relies on animals rather than crops, the Reads identified a shortage of programs offering assistance to farms of their scale.

"We have a lot of friends who are crop farmers, and when they have boom years, that doesn't help us because we buy our feed," Steve Read said. "When they have bad years, that doesn't really help us either because the industry is contracting and credit becomes even tighter."

Jody Read said she'd like to see more programs to sustain existing farmers along with programs assisting with start-up costs.Jody (left) and Steve Read (center) show Angie Craig where they produce cheese. (photo by Maureen McMullen)

"Once you start, you still need a leg-up a lot of times, because we're so dependant on variables we don't control," she said.

Keeping up with changes to food safety and environmental standards can also put a strain on smaller, family-run farms.

"We want to have an environment that's safe, but I think places of our size are going to need a little help. We don't have a cushion for raising prices," Jody Read said. "Bigger places have a whole (quality assurance) team, but here, we do everything. As they start asking for more testing of the environment, for a big company, that's a small expense. For us, it's a lot of money every month."

The Reads also discussed expanded broadband coverage in rural Minnesota. Although their property sits just eight miles outside of Northfield, a major college town, the farm didn't have Wi-Fi access until recently.

Restaurants and specialty grocery stores throughout Minnesota account for a majority of the farm's cheese sales. Jody Read said unreliable internet access can impede the process of receiving and filling orders.

Rural internet access is among the infrastructure improvement issues Craig said she hopes to work across the aisle toward a solution.

"I think it's really important that we see the daily production of how the farm works, but more importantly, we want to know what's on their mind," she said. "Today was an opportunity to say I'm here to listen and I'm willing to work with the delegation, whether it be Republican or Democrat, to make sure we support farmers in Minnesota."

Craig then went on to visit Far-Gaze Farm in Northfield.

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