Hard times in Minnesotas Red River Valley

Buck Jones was nice enough to take my call although he hadn’t yet washed up after a morning out on his farm.

Jones, 62, an electrician, retired last fall after 26 years at American Crystal Sugar in Crookston, Minn., about a 30-mile commute from his home. He lives in Erskine, population a bit over 400, in Minnesota’s Red River Valley, bordering North Dakota.

All the towns in the area have lost population, Jones told me. At one time, many residents farmed for a living, but most can’t afford to do so any more, he said. “Free trade” agreements and tax breaks have benefited global agribusiness and livestock/meatpacking corporations, but have driven farm prices down to where small farmers can’t make ends meet.

Half the businesses in Erskine have closed down, he told me. What do people do for work? “Whatever they can pick up,” he said — work in grocery stores or the hospital, low-paid jobs that typically start at $7.50 an hour.

By contrast, at American Crystal Sugar, the only union job in the area, the median pay is around $14 an hour with benefits. But even there, retirement benefits could be better, Jones said. Retirees have to pay half of their health premium, about $600 a month. It takes most of their income, he said. “The money isn’t enough to go around.”

According to the 2000 Census, per capita income for Erskine is $18,122, and nearly one in five is below the poverty line.

Jones served for 16 years as president of his union at American Crystal, Local 267 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers. He calls himself a “true blue Democrat,” adding, “I don’t like the agenda of the Republican Party.” He is on the board of the local Democrat Farmer Labor Party and has been to many state conventions. This year was his first experience as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He said he was “pretty impressed with the testimony of those who took the stage” in Boston and learned a lot at caucuses on rural issues and trade. “I think Bush will take the biggest beating of anyone. People are energized,” young voters in particular, he said. Back home, he is working on getting out the vote this fall.

The Iraq war is on the minds of the people Jones talks to. “Most want us out of there,” he said, although “a few bleeding hearts don’t seem to get the picture that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.” Quite a few in the area have kids who were sent to Iraq, he said. Many feel the war has been going on too long. “We had no business going there to begin with,” he added.

Asked what he would like to see happen if Kerry wins, Jones quickly listed four priorities:

• Take tax breaks away from the companies going overseas, and end the trade deficit. “Let ‘em at least make stuff here,” he said.

• Renegotiate NAFTA to benefit workers and small farmers.

• Provide affordable health care for ordinary people.

• Don’t privatize Social Security and Medicare.

“What we need up here is manufacturing jobs, and the other thing that would help is if we had a decent price for our crops,” Jones concluded.

Noting that three big companies — ConAgra, Cargill, and Archer-Daniel-Midlands — control 95 percent of the grain, Jones commented, “They have more lobbyists than we got congressmen. They get all the tax breaks.

“If everybody made $10 an hour we could live on that and it would be better. As it is now, a few people are making big money and a lot are not making anything.”

The author can be reached at suewebb@pww.org.