Sen. Tina Smith touts rural working group to counter slumping farm economy

Joe Bowen
Forum News Service

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. — As headline after headline points out the woes of rural America — the fallout from a U.S./China trade war and more — Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., is working to change the narrative.

In East Grand Forks, Minn., on Aug. 12, she announced the formation of a rural economic working group to “highlight what’s working in rural America and lift up the local ideas that are helping rural communities thrive in the face of a persistent slump in the farm economy,” Smith’s staff wrote in a press release.

That meant Smith fielded questions about:

• Legalizing industrial hemp, which was removed from the federal Controlled Substances Act under a 2018 farm bill on which Smith worked: “I think it is a very big opportunity in Northwestern Minnesota,” Smith said.

• A new federal law that pushes the United States Department of Agriculture to hire a rural health liaison to better coordinate rural health care: “We’re dogging the Department of Agriculture every week to make sure that they’re moving forward with getting that position filled and hired so that that person can get to work,” Smith told reporters and assorted city leaders. “One person in the whole federal bureaucracy is not going to make all the difference, but you’d be amazed how little the agencies at the federal level actually communicate with one another and actually work together in a collaborative way.”

• Mental health services in rural schools, which Smith said have to grapple with a shortage of providers on top of the broader stigma for patients: “My big question that I have is how can we support local school districts as they are expanding mental health services in the schools?” she said.

• And funding for Bureau of Indian Education schools, many of which are in rural areas: “We need to treat (tribal governments) with the kind of respect and give them the same tools that we give to other local governments to address the needs of their residents,” Smith said before offering a short “yes” when asked about more funding for bureau schools.

Then, it was on to a nearby coffee shop to chat with business and government leaders about East Grand Forks’ economy, followed by a tour in an East Grand Forks Parks & Recreation bus of the city’s movie theater, campgrounds, businesses and industrial park.

“The question is: what is working?” Smith, flanked by East Grand Forks Mayor Steve Gander, said at the city hall press conference. “And how can the ... federal government be a good partner?”

After the coffee shop chat and bus tour, Smith and her entourage were scheduled to visit a malt and barley business in Crookston, a meeting at the city’s housing and development authority headquarters to talk about the state’s housing shortage and Red Lake Falls to talk to farmers about the agriculture economy.