Dave Frederickson, Swift County
“Son, it’s a good idea to have one foot in the furrow and the other in public policy.”
That’s what Dave Frederickson’s father said to him when Dave was growing up on his Murdock family farm. He took that to heart in a big way, as a farmer, school board member, state Senator, MFU President, NFU President, congressional staffer and Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture. But not because that’s what he thought he would do.
“You don’t step into it by waking and saying, ‘One day I want to be the president of National Farmers Union,’” Dave said.
His decades in public service taught him about the importance of cooperation, navigating relationships and the balancing act of family, farming and off-farm work. Having retired in January, he’s ready to spend plenty of time relaxing and reflecting.
‘Hogs, corn, soybeans, a little bit of hell’
The Frederickson family farm consisted of 1,200 acres of corn and soybeans and a pork operation. Growing up, Dave said he raised “a little bit of hell” too.
“We worked in a little wool shed in De Graff, where we learned how to cuss, and then my mother would send us to Bible camp to clean that out of our vocabulary,” he said with a chuckle.
Dave took over the farm in 1974 with his wife Kay, and they raised daughters Anna and Emmy there. Dave also taught school for awhile, and he continued his service to public education by getting elected to the local school board. He saw the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg schools through a difficult time, when it was decided that the three cities’ schools would merge because of low population.
That turned out to be the right decision, but at the time, Dave said, “there was a lot of anger” about it. He made both friends and enemies in the process.
He also served on the board of his local Farmers Union Oil Cooperative for Swift County, learning about the supply co-op side. This was during the 1980s farm economic crisis.
“I’m proud of that co-op for sticking with those farmers,” he said.
The Frederickson farm wasn’t immune from the economic downturn of the 80s. To try to supplement what they had, Dave ran for the Minnesota Senate to represent his district, including his hometown of Murdock – and won by 32 votes.
“Farmers Union gave me a necktie with ‘32’ stitched into it,” he said. “I still have it.”
One of the key pieces of legislation he worked on was the mandate calling for 10 percent ethanol to be blended in gasoline.
“That’s a cool thing, to be part of a process that makes laws for the 5 million Minnesotans,” he said. “It is an onerous responsibility that one has to take very seriously.”
He served in the Senate for six years, before deciding to return home to farm.
“As a farmer you can only work all the time,” he said. “I found that I was doing that and more, serving as a member of the Senate, full-time farmer, parent of two, it’s difficult to do a good job of any of them.”
But he didn’t stay away from the public arena for long.
Finding common ground
When former MFU President Willis Eken retired in 1991, we needed someone to complete his unexpired term. Dave got a call asking if he’d consider it. He took the chance and ended up leading our organization for 11 years. Then he took it even further and ran for president of National Farmers Union in 2002, winning and holding that office from 2002-06.
“I lived in Denver, had a hotel room in D.C. and a home in Minnesota,” he said.
As the national president, he got immersed in the variety of agriculture in our country and realized even more the value of cooperation, especially among people who seem to have completely different interests on the surface.
“As a general farm organization, you’re talking about the interests of dairy farmers, soybean farmers, corn farmers, tobacco farmers, you name it,” he said. “You have to find some common ground. We’ve been able to do that in the Farmers Union. You look for areas you can cooperate on, particularly with other farm organizations, because if you all stand together, you can make things happen in public policy.”
Eventually he tired of the long travels and returned to Minnesota again, becoming an agricultural advisor to Sen. Amy Klobuchar. He traveled the country roads he once did when he was MFU president.
“We’ve been lucky that (Sen. Klobuchar) has been supportive of Farmers Union positions over time,” Dave said. “I hope I’ve been a little influential in that, but who knows.”
Being part of the solution
When Mark Dayton was elected governor in 2010, he asked Dave to serve as the Agriculture Commissioner. Soon Dave took on his own part on Gov. Dayton’s water quality work, spearheading efforts at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to make farmers part of the solution to Minnesota’s water quality issues.
“I’ve always said that we have a moral obligation to make sure that the water that goes down the Mississippi River is clean,” Dave said. “I don’t think there’s a farmer out there who will disagree with that.”
He spearheaded the department’s Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, which provides regulatory certainty to farmers who install best management practices most suitable to their land.
“I’ve always felt that water quality approaches should be done acre by acre, farm by farm, township by township,” he said. “I’m proud of the farmers in Minnesota who have stepped up.”
He’ll see how the work has paid off this summer when he and Kay travel the entirety of the Mississippi by boat, from the headwaters in Itasca County all the way to New Orleans. There, a friend of his will meet them with Dave’s truck and trailer and haul them back to Minnesota.
“I’ll experience all the locks and dams going through so we’ll get a better sense of the needs of those locks and dams from a maintenance perspective.”
Advice for hardships
Having lived through the 80s farm crisis, Dave can speak to the financial struggles many family farmers are experiencing now. He advised being as prepared as you can be.
“Working with Farm Business Management is such a good idea, to have someone else at the table with you,” he said. “I advise that for anyone, no matter your age.
“At the end of the day, you’re going to be all right. There’s a lot of help available if you’re really struggling. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
And you can lean on the family of Farmers Union, too.
“Farmers Union has certainly influenced me – the people, the policy, the leaders, and I will never forget that.”