Collin Peterson, Democratic voice for farm bill compromises, defeated after three decades

Under his lead, provisions were introduced for supporting local foods, organic agriculture, and permanent funding for beginning farmers and ranchers.

Democrats retained control of the House of Representatives in Tuesday’s election, but Rep. Collin Peterson, a powerful Democratic legislator and two-time chair of the House Agriculture Committee, was defeated in his reelection bid for Minnesota’s 7th Congressional district. The 15-term incumbent lost to Republican Michelle Fischbach, a former lieutenant governor, by 14 points.

Peterson is often characterized as a conservative Democrat who frequently split with the party on high-profile issues like abortion, gun rights, the Affordable Care Act, and President Trump’s impeachment. The 30-year-veteran of Congress also led the Democrats in drafting three farm bills—the trillion-dollar legislative packages that set out policies on a range of food and farm priorities, and are signed into law every five years.

The 2008 bill, which Peterson introduced in the House and later passed despite a presidential veto, included new provisions for local foods and organic farming, and established permanent funding to support beginning farmers and ranchers. It also increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by nearly $8 billion, and implemented mandatory country-of-origin labeling. The 2018 bill, which Peterson helped draft as the ranking member of the committee, included a “safety net” for dairy farmers and expanded crop insurance.

His position on the committee made him a valuable ally of the agriculture industry, and the bulk of his 2020 campaign contributions came from various farm companies and trade groups, such as the Minnesota Farm Bureau. His district is the nation’s top producer of sugar beets, and American Crystal Sugar, a Minnesota grower cooperative, spent over $1 million on his reelection campaign.

Peterson’s time in Washington may not be over, with a prominent agriculture lobbyist noting that a Biden administration “might have room for Peterson.”

Sugar has been a legislative priority. In the most recent farm bill, Politico reported that Peterson increased the sugar loan program by 5 percent, and led a push in the House to stop an amendment that would have made the industry “more market-oriented instead of relying so much on regulation via import quotas.” Also, earlier this year, he struck a bipartisan deal to provide $285 million in disaster assistance for sugar co-ops.

In recent months, Peterson has turned his attention to pandemic-induced swine slaughter. In August, on a farm and rancher roundtable to promote the Joe Biden presidential campaign, he warned of the coming of African swine fever, and said he wanted to pass rules to give the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) authority to respond to animal diseases. 

Rob Larew, the current president of the National Farmers Union, and the staff director of the House Committee on Agriculture from 2005 to 2016, says that more than policy, Peterson’s leadership style will be his legacy.

“There will be some change in ag policy, related to the loss of Collin Peterson,” Larew said. “But the legacy that he will leave, in the Agriculture Committee, is a leadership style that really empowered his subcommittee chairs and his more junior members, and I think that not only did that serve him well in trying to get broader support for his Farm Bill policies, but it also enabled him to keep strong support for nutrition programs.” 

With Democrats likely holding onto the House, Peterson’s exit creates an opening for a more progressive Democratic member to take over the Agriculture Committee. Representatives Jim Costa of California, David Scott of Georgia, and Marcia Fudge of Ohio, all current members, are next in line based on seniority. But Peterson’s time in Washington may not be over, with a prominent agriculture lobbyist telling Agri-Pulse that a Biden administration “might have room for Peterson.”

Sam Bloch is a staff writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications.