Candidates square off in a debate at DakotaFest

South Dakota state capitol building in Pierre, SD.
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Whatever the political ideology, more than likely it was represented on stage at the Congressional forum held at Dakotafest on August 23 in Mitchell, S.D. Squaring off were U.S. House of Representative candidates Libertarian George Hendrickson of Sioux Falls, Independent Ron Wieczorek of Mount Vernon, Republican Dusty Johnson of Mitchell and Democrat Tim Bjorkman of Canistota.

Addressing a full house, Hendrickson told the crowd, “My core belief is more liberty is always better, and ag prosperity has to be our number-one priority. Our entire republic depends on it.”

Wieczorek said his fundamental understanding of the crashing farm economy of the 1980s would help give the nation’s government a “major infrastructure overhaul” and that it’s time to bring morality and common sense back to our economy.

Meanwhile, Johnson told the audience that “hard work, know-how and a willingness to build bridges” is what he had to offer and what South Dakotans should send to office.

And Bjorkman promised to serve the people and never cave to pressures from special interest groups and big party bosses. He said, “Washington is broken. Both parties are failing us. My whole life has been committed to standing up for average people, farmers, ranchers and small business owners, and standing against big corporations.”

Although the forum was structured to limit sparring with each participant allowed time to answer individual questions asked by American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall, the session quickly turned into a heated debate between the state’s two major party candidates — Johnson and Bjorkman.

The two found themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to discussing issues like trade, the farm bill, conservation programs, rural broadband and revitalizing small towns, energy.

On trade, Bjorkman criticized President Trump in his trade negotiations saying, “These tariffs came on several years of diminishing farm prices, and they couldn’t have come at a worst time. Congress should have required the President to follow the Constitution and come to Congress to enact a tariff. We are now paying a devastating price. While we have real issues with trade violators like China, those need to be dealt with through international pressures, not in a reactionary method like what has been done.”

In his response, Johnson said farmers are simply looking for a pathway to market their product, and he credited ongoing relationships with Canada and Mexico for trade deals that have increased from $8 billion in 1994 to $39 in 2017. He said, “Now that we are here, we have to ask what is the best way to find a swift and successful outcome to those negotiations?”

Johnson cited three things needed in order for the U.S. to move forward into a swift and certain trade deal — making E15 available year-round, opening trade not aid, and using part of the $12 billion pledged to farmers by President Trump to “hire the best negotiations in the world to bring these bilateral agreements to the puzzle.”

Johnson scored big points with the farming crowd when he said, “We need to make E-15 available year-round. It would create millions of dollars of additional demand for fuel produced by South Dakota corn farmers, rather than from people in the Middle East. There is no evidentiary basis to deny the sale of E-15 year-round.”

However, Wieczorek responded saying, “This isn’t going to win me votes for saying this, but there was a feasibility study done on ethanol that showed it takes more energy to produce it than what we get from it. It’s insanity burning ethanol and putting up windmills. It’s going to get us nowhere!”

And while Bjorkman called for increased spending for conservation programs to “incentivize producers” to put buffer strips in critical areas and protect the land from the effects of climate change, Hendrickson stressed the importance of letting landowners make their own decisions.

Promoting a hands-off approach, Hendrickson said, “I believe we need to maintain our freedom to farm. The government needs to get out of the way and not tell us what we can grow and how we should grow it. Freeing CRP to farmers to allow them to decide what to do with it is huge.”

Bjorkman argued the need for increasing the CRP program from 24 million, as written in the Farm Bill, to 31 million acres. He said, “We have been placed on this earth to be caretakers and leave this land in the same condition we found it instead of raping and destroying the land for profit. We need to work with farmers to incentivize them to use the best practices to preserve the land. The Farm Bill cuts money from conservation and shifts it elsewhere, but we need some common sense to protect the land for future generations. CRP is good for pheasants, for conservationists, for hunting and wildlife.”

The candidates seemed to agree that advocacy was needed in Washington, D.C. in order to assure that high-speed broadband internet access reaches the rural pockets of the state.

However, Bjorkman, talking briefly on net neutrality in making sure every service provider charges the same rate, turned the conversation to prison reform and the importance of rehabilitating the incarcerated who committed non-violent crimes by giving them jobs and developing their skill sets. Bjorkman specifically took aim at Johnson, criticizing his time working on the state’s criminal justice reform.

Meanwhile, Johnson, who is fluent in this topic thanks to his work as the vice president of Vantage Solutions, ignored the jab and stuck to his script, telling the crowd that he’s been part of laying 8,000 miles of fiber optic networks across the country, and that he’s “best positioned nationally to understand the power of this technology and the power it has to transform a rural economy.” He added, “You are not going to find a stronger advocate for this in Congress; I can guarantee that.”

As the debate closed, one big question remained unanswered: What will the candidates do to improve cattle prices?

At press time, Johnson had not responded to requests for an answer; however, his campaign page stresses the importance of supporting the states agriculture. Johnson said, “Agriculture is South Dakota’s number-one industry and it underpins the culture of our state. We live in a state where we trust our neighbors and look out for each other – and in the eyes of the east and west coasts, even our largest cities are small towns. I’ll work hard on behalf of our farmers and ranchers and our way of life. Maintaining strong agriculture in our country is a matter of national security. Our farmers and ranchers are the very best, most productive in the world. We need to keep it that way. I’ll keep a close eye on the forthcoming 2018 Farm Bill and will be an advocate for productive, strong agriculture in South Dakota and across the country.”

Bjorkman responded to the question, saying, “I’ll be a fierce advocate for restoring Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). It’s just wrong for imported beef and pork to be passed off as a product of the United States of America. This all just benefits the packers while putting consumers at risk and penalizing the men and women who produce and market locally grown meat. One way to help cattle prices — which have been impacted as much as several hundred dollars a head — is to reinstate COOL, and it will be a priority for me from the day I am elected.”

Bjorkman added, “There are other factors artificially suppressing livestock prices. I’ll also fight for our South Dakota producers to amend the 1921 Packers & Stockyard Act to prohibit vertical integration in the livestock industry, which packers also use to keep prices low. It’s just wrong that the Battista brothers, in serious criminal trouble in Brazil for corrupt practices, and others like them should be able to own some of the largest livestock herds and use them to control prices by slaughtering their own livestock when prices are high, and buying and slaughtering livestock from family-scale producers when prices are low.”

As the debate closed, all four candidates vowed to work to get on the U.S. House Ag Committee to represent South Dakota producers and their best interests.