Category Archives: Politics in Minnesota

Ballotpedia – A proven port in an information storm

It was Plato himself who advised us that “those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.” My thought is that the translation “dumber” does a disservice to the wise man – “misinformed” might better fit the present state of affairs. Still, we get the idea.

It is axiomatic that this democracy is solidly based on an informed public; still, we the public are overwhelmed by questionable data, dubious interpretations, false accusations, apocryphal anecdotes and blatant abound. The flood of information offers us little time and few tools to consider the context or implications of the latest blast. The media blitz and push for ratings, the tweets, the cacophony and exchanges of ignorance have a propensity to drown out – or at least scramble – the truth.

One port in a storm I’ve found is Ballotpedia, the dynamic digital beehive based, as the mainstream media would say, “out there” – i.e. free of the NYC/DC political/media cocoon. Ballotpedia is the product of the Lucy Burns Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization headquartered in Middleton, Wisconsin, near Madison. You can learn more about the Lucy Burns Institute in an earlier post: (

Basically, Ballotpedia is an online encyclopedia of American politics and elections. The expressed goal is “to inform people about politics by providing accurate and objective information about politics at all levels of government.” Ballotpedia is a one-stop shop for information about the structure, policies, officials, demographics, and issues facing decision makers and those affected by their decisions. With an editorial staff of over 60 writers and researchers, and a complex system of internal fact-checking, Ballotpedia’s “brand” could fairly be characterized as inclusive, accurate, timely, and, above all, neutral.

One of my personal favorite features of Ballotpedia is the list of “influencers” who call the shots in DC, in the State Capitol and at City Hall. While the reader might differ with the listing of identified influencers, it’s instructive to see these fact-checkers’ take on where the influence lies….

In the midst of the current political frenzy one feature of Ballotpedia plays a lead role; Verbatim ( is the fact-checking arm of the enterprise. The legions of Verbatim fact-checkers are neutral, inclusive and at the ready. To their credit, they generously share contact information about their fact-checking colleagues and post links to academic studies on the fine art of fact-checking.

Ballotpedia fact-checkers boldly list the names and links to the host of fact-checking agencies that are delving into every word that’s uttered – or tweeted – in the ongoing political frenzy. More important, they will continue to keep their penetrating eyes on the state and local data/opinion ball when the dust settles.

The encyclopedia role and scope of Ballotpedia defies explanation and demands exploration. As might be expected, the wise founders of the multi-faceted resource provide a mix of helpful guides including tables, maps, interactive tools and more. As current events permit they also produce and maintain an online library of videos and publish The Ballotpedia Podcast. Needless to say Ballotpedia has a vibrant social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram – no doubt the best way to follow the action in the weeks and months to come.

Don’t just dip but delve into the depths of this straightforward, user-friendly, accessible and neutral resource – it will inform you through – and way beyond — Election Season 2016!



Inquiring Minds NEED to Know – Thoughts on Sunshine Week 2016

The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to bare the secrets of government and inform the people.  Justice Hugo Black 1886-1971 

“The mark of a truly civilized man is confidence in the strength and security derived from the inquiring mind.       Justice Felix Frankfurter 1882-1965

 These words of two Justices who served similar eras on the United States Supreme Court form the bookends of this post. They frame my “thoughts while thinking” about next week, March13-19, celebrated throughout the nation as Sunshine Week 2016.

Focus of the eleventh annual recognition of Sunshine Week reflects Justice Black’s emphasis on a free press. In this construct, government is the source and a free press is the necessary medium of access to information by and about our government. Traditionally, these essentials have been the emphasis of Sunshine Week, principles that have shaped my annual Sunshine Week thoughts and posts.

This year, for a mix of reasons, my thoughts keep turning to Frankfurter’s reference to the other essential, the inquiring mind. (I find consolation for my oversight in the fact that Frankfurter also observed that “wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late…”)

To give credit, it was local activist Rich Neumeister who struck me with his passionate defense of the “inquiring mind” that fuels his lifelong embrace of the spirit of inquiry to effect change.

Rich was just one of several committed open government advocates who spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon sharing their thoughts and experiences; they were the first interviewees in a fledgling video story of how and why the right to know matters. All had accepted an invitation to participate in an independent project with which I have the privilege of collaborating with Matt Ehling, President of Public Record Media.

The impetus of the project was to recognize the 50th anniversary of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); the strategy is to do so by “putting a face on” the right to know. To do this we are calling on people who represent the myriad facets and faces of how open government laws make a difference in real life. We will videotape and share their ideas, their recollections, their knowledge and their suggestions, then share those stories with Minnesotans as a way to spread that spirit of inquiry and thus inspire others to exercise their right to know.

What emerged from these first interviews was one unifying thought – that the life force of the right to know is the inquiring mind. It is the spirit of the individual who realizes the power of information that leads to change at the neighborhood or the national level.

It is our contention that, by using technology to share the experiences, perspectives and insights of these and other individuals we will celebrate not just the fact of open government but the power of inquiry itself.

On the one hand the focus is on the keys to implement the rights codified in FOIA and related legislation — sound policies, efficient bureaucracies, a free press, and a thoughtful approach to digital age challenges.

Still, the power of the right to know rests in the inquiring minds of individuals who place a priority on good information by and about the government. It is these inquisitive agents of change who breathe life into the right to know. They exercise that right by harnessing the power of information to improve their lives, their neighborhoods, their institutions.

In turn, they share their passion for inquiry and their knowledge of the channels of access, especially with young learners who too often know more about the how’s than the why’s of information access.


Minnesota Spin on African American History Month

The month of February, recognized in myriad ways by most Americans as African American History Month, turns a venerable 90 years old this year. Last year’s post focused on the centenary of the association that introduced the concept, the Association for the Study of American Life and History and Culture founded by Carter G. Woodson. ( After 90 years that fledging initiative has morphed to its present recognition as Black American Month or National African American History, a grand celebration of achievements by Black Americans and a recognition of the central role of African Americans in U.S. – and global – history.

Because this blog, in content and readership, has a Minnesota-centric bias, the thought occurred to celebrate by shining a light on the role of African American individuals and institutions close to home. It’s also an opportunity to remind readers, teachers, parents and researchers of the role of MNOpedia, a living resource that is growing in its critical role as chronicler of the North Star State.

As a very occasional contributor I am familiar with the rigorous rules that guide the research, writing and editing processes that shape MNOpedia. I have the highest regard for staff and for the scores of researchers who volunteer their time to record and share the stories of Minnesota’s people, places and things. The hallmark of MNOpedia is that each entry fills out the narrative and identifies additional resources, analysis, and a chronology that places in perspective the passages in the life of an individual, organization or event. Each article serves as an engaging and accessible point of entry to deeper learning and understanding.

And so I chose to skim the scores of entries about the people, places, organizations and events that reflect the experience of African American Minnesotans. These summaries offer a mere hint of what’s readily accessible on MNOpedia; the few noted here are intended to whet the reader’s appetite.

The theme for African American History Month 2016 is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories.” The context sparked by the theme “hallowed grounds” suggests a host of places of worship that have played a significant role in the lives of African American individuals and families as well as of the communities they have served:

  • A proud feature of Duluth, and a place of worship for African American Duluthians, is Saint Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.   St. Mark’s, founded in 1890 by Reverend Richmond Taylor, is not just a building but also the heart of Duluth’s African American community. This is a community that has weathered hard times including, but certainly not limited to, the 1920 lynching of three African American men. (Note: The Lynchings are described in another MNOpedia entry.)
  • Another church that remains central to the African American community is Saint Peter Claver Church in St. Paul, the first African American Catholic Church in Minnesota. In 1910 Father Stephen Theobald, the first African American priest ordained in the St. Paul Seminary, was named pastor of St. Peter Claver. The nucleus of a lively 21st Century community St. Peter Claver, at Oxford and St. Anthony near the much-traveled 94, welcomes a multi-racial congregation and serves as a pillar of the community it serves.
  • Crispus Attucks Home, established in St. Paul by AME missionaries Will and Fannie King served people in need for six decades, 1906-1966. Though there were several orphanages in the early days of the 20th century they served neither African American children nor people who were old or infirm. Despite great difficulties the Crispus Attucks home settled and survived for a half century in a house on Railroad Island near Swede Hollow in St. Paul. Though the original house has been razed, the site is now part of Eileen Weida Park and the Crispus Attucks Social Welfare and Education Association sponsors a scholarship fund for African American high school students.

MNOpedia articles also tell the stories of African Americans who designed or constructed “Sites of American Memories”:

  • Clarence Wigington served as lead architect in over 90 St. Paul city projects. Though a person, not a place, Wigington and place are indistinguishable in the story of African American influence in Minnesota. Today’s St. Paulites and visitors will see Wigington’s work in the playground buildings at Hamline and Minnehaha parks, the Harriet Island Pavilion, and the Highland Park Water Tower; the latter two are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Long-time St. Paul Winter Carnival attendees will recall that the original ice palaces that were envisioned and designed by Wigington.
  • Another site well remembered by African Americans and others is described in the MnOpedia article on the Casiville Bullard House, 1282 Folsom Street in St Paul’s Como Heights neighborhood. Built and owned by Casiville Bullard the house is on the National Register of Historic Places.   Bullard (b February 24, 1873) came to St. Paul in 1898 to do stone work for the third State Capitol. The work of this African American craftsman is much in the news today as architects and craftsmen restore the original beauty of that edifice.
  • ***
  • Though the sense of place is the 2016 theme of African American History Month, the many MNOpedia entries tell the stories of African American Minnesotans whose lives have made a difference in the lives of Minnesotans and of all Americans.   Included among these articles are these:
  • George Bonga (c1802-1874) may not be a household word in Minnesota, but he shared his knowledge of words as a translator before Minnesota became a state. Bonga’s father, Pierre Bonga, was African American and his mother was Ojibwe. Educated in Montreal, George spoke fluent English, French and Ojibwe, skills that made him an indispensable player in treaty negotiations in which character as well as language was essential.
  • Marvel Jackson Cooke (1901-2000) broke both the color and the gender barrier as a journalist and political activist whose life and work spanned the 20th Century.   In some ways she also broke a geographic challenge as the first African American child born in Mankato. As a young girl Marvel’s family moved to the Prospect Park neighborhood in Minneapolis where she was the first African American child enrolled at Sydney Pratt School. Later she attended the U of M, one of five African Americans who graduated with the Class of 1925. Soon after graduation she moved to Harlem where she found work as an editorial assistant for W.E.B. DuBois at The Crisis, the national publication of the NAACP.   Thus began an incredible life that included her brief engagement to Roy Wilkins, a lifetime of investigative reporting, and a summons to testify at the McCarthy hearings.
  • Nellie Stone Johnson (1905-2002) was a union and civil rights leader and subject of a recent Minnesota History Theatre. The production, affectionately entitled “Nellie” drew huge crowds.
  • Renowned as a trial lawyer, Fredrick McGhee (1861-1912) was the first African American admitted to practice law in Minnesota. Known to be a force in the courtroom McGhee was one of the founders of St. Peter Claver Church. He also worked with W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the Niagara Movement, forerunner of the NAACP.
  • George Morrison (1919-2000) who is an internationally recognized artist celebrated in the 2015 major exhibition mounted by the Minnesota Historical Society.
  • One of the state’s most popular African American heroes is Kirby Puckett (1960-2006), the iconic hero who led the Twins to the World Series not once but twice. Echoes of “k-i-r-by p-u-c-k-e-t-t” still resonate midst the ruins of The Dome. When glaucoma curbed his career Puckett retired from playing but continued with the Twins as Executive Vice President, a role in which he continued as an active and visible community leader.
  • Dred and Harriet Robinson Scott, legends in the history of emancipation, lived as slaves at Fort Snelling. the lives of both are recorded in MNOpedia. The struggle for justice is memorialized in the Dred Scott Decision that led directly to the beginning of the Civil War.
  • It was the racial prejudice she experienced as a realtor that led Lena Olive Smith (1885-1966) to a career as an attorney. As a graduate of Northwestern College of Law (1921, she was for many years the only African American woman practicing law in the Twin Cities. She is credited with helping end the segregation of African American audiences at area theaters, with prosecuting police brutality and for the NAACP protest of the U of M’s showing of Birth of a Nation.
  • African American superstar Marcenia Lyle (Toni) Stone was the first female professional baseball player in the Negro Major League; Stone also played for the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro Major League Team. The Great American History Theater celebrated the Toni Stone story in a world premiere production of Tomboy Stone in 1993.
  • John Francis Wheaton (1866-1922) was elected by white voters of the Kenwood neighborhood to serve as the first African American to serve in the Minnesota Legislature (1898).   A native of Hagerstown, Maryland, Wheaton migrated to Minnesota where he put himself through the U of M law school by working as a hotel waiter and railroad porter. Wheaton was the first African American to graduate from the U of M law school, and only the fourth to earn a U of M degree.
  • The name of Roy Wilkins (1901-1981) who spent his early years in St. Paul is best known to Minnesotans because of the St. Paul civic center that honors his name. The honor is bestowed on Wilkins because of his lifetime of leadership in the African American community and the civil rights movement.   After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1923 Wilkins worked as a social worker in Kansas; his leadership in the NAACP led to his appointment as W.E.B. DuBois’ successor as editor of The Crisis, the national publication of NAACP. From there Wilkins moved up the ranks to serve as Executive Director of NAACP, a position in which he immersed himself in legal action, the effects of which changed the nation’s laws. Among Wilkins’ countless tributes is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, bestowed in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson.


Articles in MNOpedia also chronicle events that reflect the times and tell the stories of the African American experience in Minnesota.

  • One article I particularly enjoyed is the story of the “Journeymen Barbers.” One of the fascinating notes in this article is the description of the ways in which these African American men played a role in passage of Minnesota’s Sunday closing law in 1894. The Journeymen also worked for passage of the nation’s first barber licensing laws. The Journeymen barbers union continued until 1980 when the United Food and Commercial Workers Union assumed jurisdiction over union barbers.
  • The story of the Sixteenth Battalion of the Minnesota Home Guard will capture the attention of students young and old.   A century ago the U.S. military was segregated in practice, racist in its recruiting. African American Minnesotans petitioned then Governor J.A.A. Burnquist to form an all-African American battalion of the Minnesota Home Guard.   The MNOpedia article offers a great summary of this unique story – the bibliography suggests a wealth of resources that will illuminate the lives and contributions of African American military volunteers a century ago.
  • “Black Suffrage in Minnesota” is an article that traces the story of abolition as it unfolded in Minnesota – a development that did not follow the Southern path. After the Constitutional Convention of 1857 Minnesota politicians were slow to take bold action, supporting Lincoln’s emancipation policy but reluctant to expand the rights of African Americans.   Ultimately, Minnesota joined Iowa as one of just two Northern states to call for suffrage on the national ballot in 1868. Iowa and Minnesota eventually become the first two post-Civil War states in the North whose electorate approved Black voting when both Houses voted to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment which finally passed in 1870.


MNOpedia is designed and supported by Minnesotans to tell the unique stories of Minnesotans with every Minnesotan. February is longer than usual this year, a quadrennial opportunity to spend those extra hours learning and sharing stories about African American places, people, events and things with Minnesota ties.



Remembering Zella Shannon – Library leader, visionary force

Though there was only one Zella Shannon, friends and professional colleagues recall wonderfully different facets of her legacy.  Known always as “Zella”, never “Ms Shannon,”  she is best known to many as a world-class librarian and library administrator.  Zella Shannon died at her retirement  home in Arizona on Tuesday, June 30, 2015.

The stories of Zella’s vision and leadership abound:

Retired State Librarian Bill Asp reflects on the role that Zella played in crafting what is now the taken-for-granted policy that an individual may use his or her public library card to check out items from any public library throughout the state – a truly revolutionary idea “back in the day.” Asp recalls that, during the late 60’s and early 70’s the push for reciprocal borrowing privileges, initiated among just three neighbor regions, had spread to the rest of the state’s regions – with the exception of the metro area. Asp appointed a task force to study statewide borrowing – Zella Shannon, representing the Minneapolis Public Library, served on that task force.  Asp writes, “Zella approached the task as a problem solver. She acknowledged that there would be problems and risks, but also that there would benefits. Zella was always positive. She was determined to find ways to make a statewide reciprocal borrowing compact work. Her support in bringing Minneapolis Public Library on board influenced other metropolitan public libraries and they all agreed to participate in the statewide compact.”

Similarly, many in the Minneapolis business community are likely unaware that it was Zella who imagined – then implemented – INFORM, the fee-based information service for business and industry crafted by Minneapolis Public Library in collaboration with the University of Minnesota and other metropolitan libraries. Long before the dawn of the Digital Age  Zella, always the visionary, posited that ready access to relevant and high quality information was of essential economic value. Thus, corporations would be willing to pay to enjoy ready access to the resources of the public library – the information itself and, even more, the high level skills of the library’s information professionals. (“Public Library Service to the Corporate Community, Special Libraries, 65 (January 1974).

One of my favorite Zella stories recounts her encounter with law enforcement agents who, in their quest for enemy agents or other un-American activities, demanded to see the circulation records of Minneapolis Public Library.   Zella, in step with librarians throughout the country, put a stop to that, declaring that “we’re not obstructionist of justice, but from our point of view, what someone reads in the library is private and sacred.”

In retirement, Zella pressed on to effect change. Though she ran with gusto and commitment to the principles of the DFL Zella was defeated in her run for a seat representing in the Minnesota Legislature.

Her beloved husband of many years, Floyd, died several years ago. To Zella’s regret, they had no children. Throughout her life, until her health and eyesight limited her mobility, Zella remained active in community and library activities as a member of Central Lutheran Church, as a member and one-time chapter president of Special Libraries Association, member of the Citizens League, the Metropolitan Senior Federation, and other DFL and library-associated activities. For the past couple of years she has lived in a nursing home in Arizona to be near family, always keeping in touch with personal, political and professional colleagues back in the Twin Cities.

The legacy of Zella Shannon, a committed, determined visionary, will live on in the library and political community of the city, the region and the state. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, August 1, 11:00 AM at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis where she once – or perhaps more than once – served as a Trustee





Anne Kanten – Radical, Realist, Relentless Advocate for Family Farmers


Statistics and stories often present very different pictures of reality. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the silos of data about farm workers.   Though residents of the real world have always known that women carry an enormous burden of the work on a family farm statistics fail to reflect that reality.

The good news is that the stories of the lives and contributions of women farmers is actually getting some long overdue attention in the media – and stories reveal the facts:

For Minnesota family farm advocate Anne Kanten this must bring huge satisfaction, surely a chuckle. History shows that the mind, hand and spirit of Anne Kanten are a mighty force in shaping the image and reality of women as leaders in the changing world of today’s family farm.

As Americans struggle to rethink the sources of food, food safety, nutrition, and the power of corporations and international trade agreements, it seems right to revisit the ways in which Anne Kanten’s story, still a work in progress, is “woven into the essential fabric of our nation’s history.”

Kanten set the pace for today’s women in farming – from the farm she worked with her husband Chuck to her tenure as Deputy Secretary of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to her selection as one of two recipients of the first Family Farm Champion Award sponsored by the Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG) to her honor as “Rural Champion” at the 2011 National Rural Assembly meeting in St Paul. She even has a starring role in Dairy Queen, a video view of three activist women farmers fighting for changes in agriculture policy and practices during the turbulent 1980’s. (

Reflecting on the “Rural Champion” award Kanten reminisced about a time when “the farm and the land and my faith were all tied together in the 1950’s.” What followed in the 1970’s and 80’s was catastrophic. Farmers lost their land and Kanten’s “radical” instincts came to the fore.

In 1989 Kanten was interviewed as part of the Minnesota Farm Advocate Oral History Project; the transcript of that interview with Dianna Hunter is accessible online.   In that conversation Kanten shares the narrative of the ways in which thirty years working with her husband on the family farm prepared her for her life of advocacy, high office and leadership in shaping agricultural policy at the state and federal levels – basically, how she earned the title “radical.”


Reared on an Iowa farm, the daughter of immigrants, Anne Knutson graduated from St. Olaf College and began her adult life as a high school teacher. It was when she married Chuck Kanten, a third generation farmer near Milan, Minnesota, that she began to understand the land and what it meant to be a steward of the land.  She and Chuck operated their successful family farm for three decades.

It was her commitment to land stewardship — and the devastation of the land in the mid 1970’s – that led Kanten to reshape her perspective on agriculture policy. She began to think about the political implications, and then the responsibility of the faith community to “understand more about this whole business of agriculture policy.” In the end, she realized, she reflects “it was really the church that got me going, and that moved me eventually into the political arena, and the soap boxing that I did in the name of the family farm.”

Kanten began to change the questions she was raising in her own mind about the politics of agriculture. Her inquiring mind led her first to the county library where she read up on agriculture and the history of agricultural policy. Next she visited the local banker, then back to the library to learn about investments and returns.

Thus prepared, Kanten was at the ready to take action when farm families were devastated by the financial crisis of the late 70’s and 80’s. She found a venue for her experience and ideas in the grassroots American Agriculture Movement (AAM). The agenda, Kanten relates, was simple: “Keep people on their farms, with parity prices for agriculture.” Engrossed in AAM, Anne “hit the road” – traveling to the Capitol in St Paul and to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC “listening and learning and sharing, and just telling people what was going on in the heartland of the United States.”

During the recorded interview Anne describes in poignant detail the 1979 Tractorcade to DC, encounters with the police, the false rumors of violence, and, most of all, the leadership: “The quality, the intelligence and the ability of those farmers was absolutely exceptional. And I was very proud to be a part of that.” Anne defends what might be viewed by some as naivete by affirming the role of the governed in setting the political agenda: “I still think that’s the proper way to lobby. That you go and you tell your story, and you tell it honestly and truthfully to the best of your ability. That’s what it means to lobby. And we didn’t have any training sessions or anything. We simply went to tell our story.”

All this leads to the next chapter of Anne’s narrative which begins in December 1982 when she was tapped by Governor Rudy Perpich to serve as Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture; in that position she was responsible for all of the regulatory divisions of the agency. When the Star Tribune heralded “Radical Farm Woman Appointed to Department of Agriculture” she decided to assume the role.  Anne remembers how she was expected to wear “two different hats” – dealing with the legal complexities of the regulations while never losing sight of how the “farmer fits in.”

At first blush, the impact of the AAM Tractorcade may seem minimal. Still the experience changed the essence of AAM – and the life of Anne Kanten. Anne emerged as a leader; she began to work with Lou Anne Kling who had been working close to home with farmers in her area, providing technical assistance, information, help to family farmers trying to meet the legal and regulatory complexities of operating in troubled times.

The two women came to understand that “there were farmers who needed help, who first of all didn’t want to admit it, and who even when they did admit it found it very difficult to walk through a professional door to get help. They found it very difficult to walk into a county Extension office, or even to share with their lender what was going on. Or many of them couldn’t even share with their spouse, or their own kids what was going on. So there was the beginning of a lot of pathos….”

The two women concluded that one solution would be to “clone” Lou Anne, to train volunteer farmers who would be knowledgeable and willing to share their expertise – and time – with their neighbors. And thus began the Minnesota Farm Advocate Program of which Kanten became the Chief Administrator. The goal of the program was to provide training and a venue or farmers and bankers to resolve their differences, to move both parties from animosity to restored trust. The story of the Farm Advocate Program is recorded in print and in the oral history project of the Minnesota Historical Society. In her interview Anne describes the participants as “a most wonderful bunch of human beings…Because they are so dastardly smart and intelligent, is one thing. But their commitment to help other farmers is most remarkable.”

Throughout her life, Anne and Chuck traveled the world, first as “lay mission observers” from their church, always as family farmers.   Travel convinced Anne, 1) that agriculture policy must be viewed and shaped from an international perspective, and 2) that the relationship between women and farming is symbiotic.

Her thoughts, recorded in 1989, are prescient.   Speaking of the struggle of women Anne reflects:

There is a sense that women were still responsible for the production of food. Women are still responsible for feeding the family. It was women who would get up early in the morning and go for water, maybe walking miles. Walking for firewood to build a fire. Going to the fields to hoe, and to plant, and to harvest. The tremendous burden on women.”

Comparing her own life as a woman farmer with the lot of women in lesser developed nations, Anne concludes:

Women here…have not held up our end as we should. I think the crisis of the ‘80’s has brought a lot of women to the fore, has gotten a lot of women educated, and gotten a lot of women into understanding policy and understanding lenders’ regulations, and so there have been good things….The experience in Africa was a good perspective to have in my head when I talked about agricultural policy.

Speaking into that recorder a quarter century ago, Anne concluded that in this country women had been ‘the invisible farmers.’

We have quietly done that bookwork, and we have driven the trucks, and we have driven the tractors, and we have taken care of the kids, and we have gone to PTA, and we’ve done all those things. But we have not been in the visible policy arena.  And we have not been on the boards and commissions that make decisions. And I think that women are just coming to that now.

Now, as then, Kanten’s focus is on the future, above all on the need for advocacy and for collaboration among family farmers. Clearly, she is spot on in her insistence on the imperative to shape agriculture from a global perspective. On the topic of the role of women in agriculture, it is abundantly clear that she called that one, too.

Anne remains a vibrant force in shaping agriculture with the role of the family farmer and of women at the core of her thinking. Her husband and partner Chuck died in July 2014; their son continues to operate the family farm. With her customary vision and indomitable spirit Anne maintains her “radical” commitment to the role of family farmers, with special focus on the expanding role of women as producers of the world’s food supply.

The story of Anne Kanten is for all time woven into the essential fabric of the history of agriculture, of Minnesota and of the nation.













Minnesotans Roll Out the Red Carpet for Elected Officials from Around the Nation

This post was originally written for and published in Minnesota 2020 8-21-14

If the conversation on Nicollet Mall is politically charged this week, there’s good reason.   Gathered at the Convention Center are several hundred elected representatives from around the nation and the world. All week I have had the opportunity to marinade in the lively presence of attendees at the National Conference of State Legislatures – elected representatives and staff of the fifty states’ very diverse governmental entities as well as an impressive contingent of international visitors.

Though members of the Minnesota Legislature are everywhere, the local press seems to me to be conspicuous by their absence. They and their readers are missing a great story – some highlights:

Most notable, perhaps, is the fact that the gathering is remarkably civil. Elected officials with diametrically opposed political views are managing somehow to respect each others’ opinions, to listen, and to discuss with marked civility. I’ve observed discussions of everything from voter registration to health care to humane treatment of farm animals and found attendees willing, if not eager, to hear our their colleagues’ perspective.

One good example of collegiality happened on Tuesday when the members of NCSL conveyed special honors on former Congressman Martin Olav Sabo, recognized as a founding father of NCSL. Particular mention was made of the Congresman’s work on government transparency, specifically Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law. It was a privilege to hear Mr. Sabo accept the recognition and to commend and further inspire the collaborative approach of NCSL.

Minnesotans starred again on Wednesday when Senator Amy Klobuchar joined Cindy McCain (yes, wife of John McCain) to lay out the facts of sex trafficking in this nation. Mincing no words, they outlined the steps these elected officials might make in their own states, as legislators and as community leaders. Their frank and practical approach was clearly an eye-opener for many attendees.

Minnesota leaders, including Governor Dayton and Mayor Hodges as well as a number of legislators are involved as speakers and panelists throughout the conference. Senate President Sandy Pappas and Speaker Paul Thissen headed up the cadre of Minnesota legislators who.master-minded event planning. It was the legislators who arranged the feature of the conference that stands out in my mind as the crowning glory of the Summit – to wit:

Staffers of the Minnesota Legislature are the omnipresent guides that are making the Summit stress-free! Clad in bright blue shirts, volunteers are everywhere! They are smart, smiling, ready to go the extra mile to guide a lost legislator who may be reluctant to admit that she’s overwhelmed by the cavernous Convention Center. The guides don’t just answer but anticipate the visitor’s question. This congenial, informed squadron of local experts sets a high standard not just for Minnesota Nice but for Minnesota Informed!



International Year of Family Farming – What it’s about, Why it matters

For Minnesotans the true Rite of Spring is planting season – even if the experience is remembered or vicarious.  Planting season with real farmers on real tractors with genetically un-modified seeds, rotated crops and other practices that promote sustainable agricultural systems.  Happily, nostalgia is giving way to reality as urban farming, farm to home, and farmers market programs and locavore cuisine raise the profile of family farming and the role that family farmers play in growing nutritious food to feed a hungry world — while protecting the environment and preserving the land.

Still, conspicuously absent from the mainstream headlines is the news that 2014 is International Year of Family Farming!   This global effort aims to reposition family farming at the center of agricultural, environmental and social politics “by identifying gaps and opportunities to promote a shift towards a more equal and balanced development.”

IYFF offers the chance for a global conversation among family farmers and, even more, among those working outside the agriculture sector, to creatively re-think the central role, strength, and challenges to the family farm.  Planners encourage policy makers to think systemically – to connect the dots that link family farming with the organic whole in which family farming is an essential player – the environment, economic development, sociological, cultural and community ties.

Who should celebrate the International Year of Family Farming?  This is, after all, an international initiative, promoted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in particular.  At the global level, attention is understandably on the mega-issues – addressing world hunger, building strong economies in third world countries, promoting sustainable agriculture.  The UN website describes an ambitious vision and sets the context.

Still, for Minnesotans, family farming is a local issue that invites individual and organizational attention.  Close to home, who has a stake in the celebration of the IYFF?   Everyone, of course…..

  • Anyone or any organization that cares even peripherally about safe food or the environment
  • Educators and educational institutions that shape both the opportunities and the attitudes of youth
  • Local newspapers and the advertisers that support their role as the connectors of the community
  • Urban oriented media that need to go on the road not just for features and oddities (fun as they are) but for hard news and news analysis.
  • Government agencies that gather and manage data – if it’s not counted, it doesn’t count when resources are allocated or services delivered.
  • The faith community whose rural presence is precarious at best.
  • Proponents of broadband — though there’s been a lot of talk and action, there’s not been a so much talk about or engagement of small and family farmers
  • Obviously, family farming matters to each of us because we all care about  land preservation, clean water and air, safe food, the state economy,  the welfare of all Minnesotans…..

Bottom line – focus on family farming deserves to be moved to the front burner.  The voices of family farmers must be heard in every discussion.  The data needed to reflect the reality.  The environment, the economy, the story of Minnesota’s heritage depend on our collective awareness and understanding of family farming as a core value.

The International Year of Family Farming offers Minnesotans a push to get up and do what needs to be done to understand and preserve our proud heritage.