GOODHUE COUNTY — Jason Lewis brought his listening tour to farm country in southeast Minnesota Thursday.
The former Republican congressman from Minnesota's 2nd District is running to unseat U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, who is finishing the final two years for former Sen. Al Franken's term, in the November election.
Lewis started the day at a hog farm near Bellecester owned by the Kohlnhofer family where he discussed the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on the hog industry.
Jeff Kohlnhofer told Lewis that the family business has started shipping only 50% of its hogs to processors as the hog processing capacity drops across the country. That means mature hogs that are market-ready grow beyond the weight where they can be accepted at the processors.
The Kohlnhofers shared data that shows the weekly number of hogs slaughtered in the U.S. has dropped from a three-year average of about 2.2 million to 2.4 million during the same week to about 1.7 million this year. The same report from agriculture research firm Pipestone shows about 3.8 million fewer hogs have been slaughtered this year as processing plant capacity has dropped about 40%.
While they have not taken that step yet, Yon Kohlnhofer said it's only a matter of time before the family farm will need to start euthanizing animals. Because production capacity is projected to be short for several months, the plan is to euthanize hogs across the age and weight ranges so the capacity on the farm at any given time matches capacity of the processors who buy from the Kohlnhofers.
"Out here, the hardest thing to do is euthanize healthy animals," Yon Kohlnhofer said.
At Buck Farm, a corn and soybean farm near Welch, Les Anderson, a corn and soybean farmer, said crop farmers don't have it as bad as livestock farmers at the moment – though crop prices are down, and markets don't have the demand for grains. Ethanol plants are closed or running at low capacity. Livestock farmers are not ordering as much feed. And foreign markets aren't ordering as much grain.
Lewis said he's undertaken his Minnesota tour to hear what problems people are facing, and the biggest problem is how the economic shutdown is impacting their business. Whether it's hog farmers and meat processors, dairy farmers or row crop growers, or main street businesses and the resort industry of northern Minnesota – resort owners in Brainerd said if they aren't open by Memorial Day, half the resorts will go under, the Republican said – the ongoing closure of the economy has business owners worried.
"When this started, we were all on board," Lewis said about the stay-at-home orders. "I was on board. We needed 15 days for hospitalization capacity to catch up."
But 15 days turned into two months, Lewis said, and a recent study he cited said the vast majority of Minnesota COVID-19 deaths are attributed to people with underlying health conditions and the elderly.
Meanwhile, the government's response has hurt people economically and infringed on their civil liberties without giving them the help they need to survive the government-imposed shutdown, he said. He pointed to the CARES Act, which was supposed to have $30 billion for the Commodity Credit Corporation to help livestock farmers, but that money hasn't made it to farmers yet. Meanwhile, Smith voted twice against COVID-19 relief packages.
"All of the other political liberties don't mean much if they can take your means to earn a living and put food on the table," he said. "It looks more like 1984 than 2020."