Agriculture and Environmental Factions Collide

tumafeature“All we are asking is parity price for him. . .”
Gov. Floyd B. Olson

At the beginning of the Depression, Minnesota farmers had a champion in Floyd B. Olson. Elected governor of Minnesota in 1930 as our state’s first third-party governor, he was an early advocate of price protection for farmers. This position was an outgrowth of his involvement in creating the Farmer Labor Party. As a popular governor in a farm state, he was a key agitator in the Midwest for a moratorium on farm foreclosure and for national action that led to the very first federal farm bill adoption under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He actually felt the New Deal farm legislation, known as the Agriculture Adjustment Act, did not go far enough. He advocated for something very similar to the present day farm commodity insurance provisions being proposed in Washington DC for its new generation farm bill.

What may be surprising to most Minnesotans today is that Gov. Olson was a product of Minneapolis’s North Side. He graduated from North High in 1909. After graduation he did odd jobs through Minnesota, Canada, Alaska and Seattle before settling back in Minneapolis to get a law degree. He eventually became Hennepin County attorney in 1920 where he gained a reputation for taking on corruption, bootleggers and the Ku Klux Klan.

At the beginning of the Great Depression, this radical progressive no-nonsense prosecutor was able to ride a wave of dissatisfaction amongst working-class and farmers of the state into the governorship. He was also an ardent environmentalist. He would go on to be venerated as one of Minnesota’s most respected governors. President Roosevelt even considered bringing him on as his running mate for his reelection in 1936. Unfortunately Olson became ill at that time and would die of cancer in the summer of 1936 at 44.

Therefore, one of the strongest advocates for farmers in our state history was an environmentalist progressive from the north side of Minneapolis. This historic fact may be something rural Republicans in the legislature should have considered this week before they attacked the new DFL selection for chairwoman of the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee, Rep. Jean Wagenius. She is also an environmental progressive from Minneapolis, but from the south side of the metropolis.

The House Republican caucus’s first official act of dissent in the 2013 Legislative Session was to make a motion to strip away the agricultural finance portion of Wagenius’ jurisdiction and give it to the separate Agriculture Policy Committee. During the first day of session, which is traditionally the ceremonial day of swearing-in and celebration for family and friends, the Republicans took the unusual action of bring this motion to strip away some of Wagenius’ jurisdiction. The Republican Caucus sent out a press release attacking her as a “Mother Earth feminist”. The motion was referred to the Rules Committee and will likely fail, but it definitely sets a combative tone.

The Republican attacks on the new DFL leadership and Wagenius continued when she held her first committee hearing on Thursday. Groups like the Minnesota Farmers Union quickly distanced themselves from the action by the Republican Party, wanting to give the new chair the benefit of the doubt. To her credit as a seasoned veteran of these battles, Wagenius did not take the bait and refused to engage in partisan bickering. Unfortunately this sends a clear signal that environmental issues affecting agriculture will be highly contentious this session.

*The Political Career of Floyd B Olson. George H Meyer Minnesota Historical Society Press 1987, Page 154

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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