Moments after officially canceling the 2020 Steele County Free Fair, the manager of the county’s biggest annual party was already in discussions about how to bring the fun to the fairgrounds this summer.
“We want to take some little steps toward bring the smiles back on people’s faces,” said Fair Manager Scott Kozelka. “We want to still be able to do what we always do up here — have fun.”
On June 27-28, the Steele County Fairgrounds will host Drive-In Dairy Days. Working in collaboration with the Steele County American Dairy Association, the weekend will see 10 fan favorite fair-food vendors lined up in front of the grandstand in celebration of June Dairy Month.
“The Malt Stand is number one,” Kozelka said in regard to the beloved ADA Malt Stand that is a staple at the fair every year. “Along with them, I tried to come up with additional stands that fit or coordinate with dairy and agriculture.”
Kozelka said that the fair felt compelled to help the local ADA chapter following the cancelation of not only the fair but also Breakfast on the Farm, which serves as the association’s main Dairy Month celebration and fundraiser. The Malt Stand is also set up during Owatonna Crazy Days and the Fourth of July events to raise money, both which have been canceled in 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are just trying to help everyone we can who normally helps us at the fair in a variety of ways,” Kozelka said. “We want to work and do the things that we are allowed to do for the people of Steele County and all the friends of the fair.”
Steele County American Dairy Association Board member Gail Zollner said this opportunity to open the stand next weekend is crucial for its fundraising efforts.
“The Malt Stand is basically one of our main fundraisers for the American Dairy Association, but it also serves as a fundraiser for other nonprofit groups that come in and help run it,” Zollner explained. “We are just excited to be there and have an event in a safe and appropriate way, but while still giving everyone a taste of their favorite fair fare.”
The food stands will be spaced a minimum of 30 feet apart from one another to adhere to appropriate social distancing. Kozelka and Zollner both emphasized that the event is “drive-in” and that picnic tables and areas for gathering will not be provided.
“It really is meant to allow you to come in and get your fix,” Kozelka said, adding that they will have volunteers on the grounds reminding people to remain at a safe social distance. Zollner echoed Kozelka, suggesting that people treat it like they would if they were eating ice cream in their cars in the middle of winter.
Despite the drive-in aspect of the event, Zollner said that they will still be providing some education on dairy, and how individuals and families can incorporate the important food group into their diets.
“There are a lot of ways to incorporate dairy different than just drinking more milk,” Zollner said. “I may not drink as many glasses as I should as an adult, but it sure goes well in my coffee. There are a lot of different ways like that to include in your diet as a great way to get protein as well as a nice way to support some of our local farmers.”
Also in attendance at the event will be the Steele County Dairy Princess. In traditional year, the dairy princesses would be busy visiting daycares and day camps to present fun crafts and share healthy dairy-based snacks with the kids. With the restrictions surrounding COVID-19, Zollner said that the dairy princesses have been more active on social media, posting videos of them visiting a local farm and reading stories for kids to consume on the Steele County Dairy Farmers Facebook page. The princesses will talk about the importance of dairy to those in attendance at Dairy Days.
“This is going to be a great fun and new opportunity to do something different this year as a way to celebrate Dairy Month,” Zollner said. “We are excited to be there.”
Aside from Dairy Days, Kozelka said that the fair staff and Board of Directors are still exploring different ideas on how to bring events to the fairgrounds throughout the year. They are currently planning on having a handful of food stands available in front of the grandstand on Fourth of July, and are in the beginning of discussions about an event during fair week as well as a potential fall festival. Kozelka said that any events at the fairgrounds in 2020 will likely have a similar set up to Dairy Days.
In a competitive election, critics of third-party candidates often regard them as “spoilers,” who may tip a close election to the candidate most ideologically divergent from them by drawing away votes from the candidate they are ideologically closer to.
Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party Chairman Chris Wright strongly disagrees with the characterization. He says that both major parties have failed to deliver on important issues and that by voting for one of them, voters are enabling the “status quo” to continue.
“We haven’t spoiled the economy, social policies or the environment,” he said. “They like to call us spoilers because they feel they have an entitlement to power.”
While DFL candidates might seem to be more in danger of losing some of their supporters to a pro-marijuana Party candidate, Gustavus Adolphus College Professor Chris Gilbert said it’s not that clear cut.
Gilbert said that while legalizing marijuana is traditionally seen as a liberal issue, and enjoys strong backing from young voters, who lean DFL in general, many libertarian-minded voters who hold right-leaning views on other issues support it as well.
According to the Star-Tribune/MPR News Minnesota poll, support for recreational marijuana is strongest among DFLers, with 59% expressing support. But with support from 50% of Independent voters and 42% of Republicans, it doesn't break down as neatly along party lines as many other issues.
Carleton College Professor Melanie Freeze said she’s studied the “spoiler” issue extensively and the evidence is far from clear cut. While she said that third parties can tip an extraordinarily close election, she said their impact is often less direct.
“It’s hard to find evidence of the spoiler effect,” she said. “(Third parties) activate people who wouldn’t have come out to vote and pull from both candidates.”
On the other hand, young voters tend to be the strongest demographic of support for third parties, recreational marijuana and DFL candidates. Thus, many Republicans are expecting that the DFL side is more likely to take a hit if they do well.
Rice County Republican Party Chair Kathy Dodds said that she expects the district's conservative voters to largely eschew pro-marijuana candidates. Dodds said that many Rice County Republicans are comfortable with the party's skepticism towards recreational marijuana.
"I don't think it will hurt the Republicans so much, but I think there are a lot of liberals that want marijuana legislation to pass and they would consider voting for the third party," she said.
Dodds noted that while Republicans have expressed discomfort with recreational marijuana, many have also voiced support for medical marijuana. However, attempts to relax the state's restrictive medical marijuana laws have faced resistance from Republicans.
Since the medical marijuana program launched in 2015, the state has banned sale of the raw cannabis flower, only allowing marijuana extract to be sold in liquid, pill or vaporized form, which medical marijuana advocates say has driven up costs while limiting treatment options. An attempt by the DFL-controlled House to remove this ban was included in the state's healthcare omnibus bill. However, Senate Republicans blocked the provision, siding with advocacy organizations skeptical of marijuana who say the ban is needed to prevent smoking.
By simply being on the ballot, third parties can raise attention to certain issues and pressure candidates. Freeze noted that while a variety of factors are at work, DFLers have become increasingly vocal about the issue since both pro-marijuana parties achieved major party status.
Still, both Gilbert and Freeze agreed that both pro-marijuana parties are extremely unlikely to win seats. Even during the height of its popularity, the Reform/Independence Party of former Gov. Jesse Ventura rarely won more than 10% of the vote, Freeze said.
Last year, DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler launched a listening tour, traveling the state to get feedback from residents across Minnesota on the issue. He subsequently introduced a bill in the legislature that would legalize it.
Similarly, Gov. Tim Walz ordered state agencies to prepare for the legalization of marijuana. However, the State Senate remains under Republican control, and has remained firmly opposed to marijuana legalization.
While both pro-marijuana parties are enjoying unprecedented levels of support, Minnesota’s other minor parties have been left scrambling to maintain a presence on Minnesota ballots at all.
Currently, the state has three official minor parties. Any party which achieves more than 1% of the vote in a statewide election is granted minor party status for the next two elections, which brings several benefits.
Under that program, Minnesotans can make a contribution of up to $50 to a recognized major or minor party and receive a full refund. Currently, the Green Party, Libertarian Party and Independence-Alliance Party qualify as minor parties.
The Independence-Alliance Party, once known as the Minnesota Reform Party, was the party of Ventura and enjoyed major party status for 20 years. It lost that after failing to reach 5% in any statewide race in the 2014 elections.
With COVID-19 making it impossible to gather signatures for ballot access through face to face voter contact, the Libertarians, Greens, Independence Alliance Party and Veterans Party of Minnesota successfully lobbied for changes allowing signatures to be gathered electronically.
When it comes to getting on the ballot in local races, Libertarian Party Chairman Chris Holbrook said that electronic signature gathering has proved next to useless, because under state law signatures to get on the ballot in a local race must be gathered from residents of the district.
While signatures of residents living in a certain area could easily be gathered by going door to door, Holbrook said it’s nearly impossible to do that electronically. With most email addresses private, it’s exceptionally hard to electronically send a petition to a large number of people in a certain neighborhood. As a result, very few minor party candidates successfully managed to make it on to the ballot for Congress or state Legislature. In an attempt to gain more time, the four parties filed a lawsuit seeking additional time for signature gathering.
The Secretary of State’s Office fought them and court, arguing that as the minor parties had received other accommodations, including permission to gather signatures electronically, additional time should not be needed.
The minor parties lost their initial case, though appeals are ongoing. Holbrook noted that in a number of other states, courts have provided additional relief to make it easier for minor parties to get on the ballot.
Nominating petitions to get presidential candidates on the ballot are ongoing, and are not due until August. Last week, Minnesota Libertarians started circulating a ballot petition to get its candidates, Jo Jorgensen and Jeremy "Spike" Lee, onto the November ballot.
Holbrook said that while the Libertarian Party may not have ballot access, a number of Libertarians and libertarian-leaning candidates have taken advantage of the official party status held by the two pro-marijuana parties to run under their banner.
In general, he said that Minnesota’s third parties have had warm relations and offered each other support. In addition, he noted that the Libertarian Party has strongly advocated for legalization of marijuana and an end to the “War on Drugs” since its inception.
Aided by the historic unpopularity of major party candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, third parties enjoyed a historic rise in support. The Libertarian ticket performed the best, winning about 3.8% in Minnesota and 3.3% nationwide.
“Third parties tend to do better when they name someone who has some political resume, and that usually means someone who served for one of the major parties,” he said.
The Steele County Historical Society has officially opened up for the season at both the Village of Yesteryear and the exhibits inside the History Center this week, allowing drop-in tours as well as call-ahead appointments.
Interim Director Jerry Ganfield said that while they have taking appropriate measures and precautions to follow the state guidelines regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, he believes that the tours will more or less “look like normal” throughout the summer.
“Our normal traffic is small enough that we can accommodate the 10-people rule, two to five people in a tour is normal for us,” Ganfield said. “The biggest difference is that we’re not doing the bus tours or larger groups right now.”
Ganfield said that the History Center is set up with sanitizer and masks, and that all tour guides will wear masking and bringing sanitizer wipes with them as they move about the exhibits and village. While Ganfield says that it is fortunate that the village is a largely open-air tour, one of the new rules will be that guides will be the only ones opening and closing doors.
“We are just going to try to acknowledge social distancing the best we can, so we might have guides go into some of the smaller buildings with only a couple people at a time,” Ganfield said. During the off months, Ganfield said that volunteers have been able to take advantage of the time to paint and refresh the buildings in the village, as well as update the gardens.
“We have been seeing a lot more foot traffic through the village with everyone being at home during the stay-at-home order,” Ganfield said. “It’s truly nice to see the people walking through the village.”
For the indoor tours, there are currently two exhibits on display at the Steele County History Center, Country Schools: The Beating Heart of the Rural Community and American Legion: A Powerful Factor for Good.
“At one point we were approaching 100 schools in Steele County before they began closing throughout the 1960s as transportation became better and people could go to Owatonna, Blooming Prairie, Medford and Ellendale,” Ganfield said, adding that many township halls throughout the county are former one-room schoolhouses. “There are a lot of people who have been in rural schools, perhaps more than those who have been in Legions. Everybody that is at a certain age went to one.”
Ganfield said that the Legion exhibit tells the story of the forming of the American Legion, with an emphasis on youth sports teams sponsored by the Legion as well as charitable efforts. Both exhibits have an emphasis on Steele County-specific details and include interactive activities for families to take home with them.
“Unfortunately because of the guidelines we have from the state, we don’t currently have a spot for people to do the activities here,” Ganfield said. “But we can talk about them and people can bring them home.”
As the historical society moves into tour season, Ganfield said that they wouldn’t be surprised to see an uptick in those interested in tours due to people looking for new things to do during COVID-19. He said that because of its location near Interstate 35 and Highway 14, both the village and the center see a fair share of passersby from the thoroughfares.
“During the time that we were closed, we’ve really appreciated all the volunteers who helps us maintain the village and get us ready for when we could open back up,” Ganfield said about the preparation that went into the beginning of tour season. “So often we have found that our volunteers are very faithful during hard periods, this one included.”