Senate DFLers tap college professor to lead ag committee

Two people take selfie photo
MN Governor Tim Walz and Sen. Aric Putnam, DFL-St. Cloud, take a selfie photo with Thanksgiving turkey at the Minnesota Capitol in St Paul, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Sen. Aric Putnam, DFL-St. Cloud, was quick to acknowledge that he’s got a lot to learn before the legislative session starts in January.

After snapping a selfie with the governor and a turkey at the Capitol last month, the communication professor at Saint John’s University and the College of St. Benedict said he’s getting ready to meet with farmers around the state before he takes the helm of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

He’s not a farmer and hasn’t worked in agriculture. But Putnam said he’s hopeful that taking a tour of farms and networking with ag groups this month will help get him up to speed.

“I think what it takes to do this work well is humility and curiosity. And I have more of that than many of the people that I work with,” Putnam said. “And so for that reason, I think I'm incredibly qualified to lead this particular committee. Because I know what I don't know. And I want to know more.”

Aric Putnam poses for a portrait
District 14 State Sen. Aric Putnam, photographed Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022 in St. Cloud.
Kimm Anderson for MPR News

After a surprise win in last month’s election, DFLers are set to take control of the state Senate in January. The DFL also held their majority in the Minnesota House. Their wins stacked up largely in the Twin Cities, suburbs and population centers in Greater Minnesota. But not in rural Minnesota.

That left them with a relatively limited bench when it came to picking the new heads of the panels that focus on the state ag budget and new farm policies.

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House DFLers promoted Brooklyn Center Rep. Samantha Vang, who’d served as vice chair of the ag committee in that chamber. And Senate leaders tapped Putnam, of St. Cloud, to run the Senate panel even though he didn’t serve on the committee over the last two years.

The choice raised red flags for some farmers set to return to the Legislature.

“I think there's caution, or concern about the depth of knowledge of ag experience, rural background and farming and ag issues with the current DFL leadership and who they've picked as a chair,” said Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Alexandria, a lawyer who grew up on a farm. “And as a caucus, their lack of depth in rural and agriculture issues is a concern for rural Minnesota overall.”

Republican challenger Torrey Westrom
Republican Sen. Torrey Westrom
Dave Arntson / For MPR News

Westrom and other GOP lawmakers said they’re worried that having fewer farmers in DFL leadership could lead to new rules that are out-of-step with farmers’ interests.

Republican Rep. Paul Torkelson farms near Hanska and while he thinks Vang will lead the committee well, other DFLers could get in the way, he said.

“I think she's bright and fresh, friendly, I think she will listen. But she has a caucus that is pretty much devoid of farmers, or even anyone who is involved with agriculture directly,” Torkelson said. “So that will be a challenge.”

State house district 40B candidate Samantha Vang
Samantha Vang campaigning for Minnesota House in 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Vang wasn’t available for an interview, but in a statement said she’ll keep listening to producers and work to “continue to gain the trust of communities by showing my commitment to doing the work well.” And DFL Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, pushed back on the notion that Democrats wouldn’t prioritize needs in the ag community.

Hortman said House Democrats were responsive to farmers’ concerns over the past four years, passing funding to repair collapsed barns and manage the impact of drought. And she said that wouldn’t change.

“We had a whole state approach for the last four years and we will have a whole state approach for the next two years,” Hortman said, noting that she thinks Vang can execute that approach and deliver for the increasingly diverse ag economy.

Ahead of the legislative session, both Vang and Putnam met with farm and ag industry groups, as well as Walz Administration ag officials. Overall, ag leaders say they feel hopeful about the new leaders.

“It seems like he's a well-educated person and seems to be reasonable,” said Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union of Putnam. “And I think we can work well with him and Representative Vang. We've had experience working with her the last few years or a few years since she's been elected. And she's been very, very good to work with.”

Wertish said his group was gearing up to teach Putnam, along with dozens of new lawmakers, about the state’s agriculture industry. And he said Farmers Union members would make their priorities known at the Capitol.

Minnesota Farm Bureau President Dan Glessing said he’s getting ready for similar introductory chats. And the power structure at the Capitol had little impact on that, he said.

“I think it doesn't matter whether you're independent, Democrat or Republican, it's kind of important that you're able to eat and I think most folks understand that that's our job is to provide food for folks,” Glessing said. “We're going to have those conversations the same as if we would have had completely Republican-controlled everything. Our approach hasn't changed.”

Putnam said he’ll start his tour of farms across the state later this month. And until then, he said he hopes farmers will reach out to share their concerns.

“The phone number that's listed on my webpage and all my official site and stuff is my personal cell number. So you call that and I'm the guy to actually talk to, then there's my official email that you can send to if you want to meet with me, I'd love to do that, too,” Putnam said. “I'm a very open and accessible guy.”