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Michigan’s ‘queen of ag’ is retiring, risking Democratic U.S. Senate seat

Then-President Barack Obama sitting behind a table. He is surrounded by several lawmakers. An American flag is behind the lawmakers
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, third from left, watches then-President Barack Obama sign the 2014 farm bill at Michigan State University. Many in Michigan's agriculture industry are concerned her departure will diminish their influence in Congress. (Courtesy Michigan State University)
  • U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s longstanding alliance with agriculture industry played key role in her winning elections
  • As the Democrat retires, no candidate has yet emerged as the clear choice among farmers, who trend conservative
  • Michigan’s U.S. Senate race is considered a tossup between Republicans and Democrats

As U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow prepares to retire, the state’s agricultural community is bracing for an abrupt power shift in Congress and wondering who will pick up the torch for Michigan farmers. 

Stabenow's long and close connection forged with one of the state's top industries gave her staying power in the conservative-leaning agriculture community and carried her through many tough elections.

Her pending departure puts those crossover farmers back in play and has made the seat one of the most competitive in the country as candidates like Elissa Slotkin and Mike Rogers compete to replace her.

Building a strong relationship with the agricultural community was “one of the most brilliant maneuvers Debbie Stabenow made in her political career," pollster Richard Czuba told Bridge.

Stabenow has chaired or served on agriculture committees in every state legislative or congressional seat she’s occupied and has been the chair or ranking member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee since 2011.

Debbie Stabenow sitting on a porch in Mackinac Island
Stabenow, longtime chair of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, is retiring at the end of her current term. (Bridge photo by Lauren Gibbons)

She’s played a key role in shepherding bipartisan farm bills through Congress that brought new benefits to Michigan’s dairy farmers and specialty crop growers. 

It’s unclear whether the state’s agricultural community will consolidate support behind any of the candidates vying to replace her, though some candidates are already attempting to make overtures. 


With the 2024 Senate contest expected to come down to the wire this fall, who farmers decide should take Stabenow’s place could help decide the race.

“At the end of the day, farmers do vote,” said Sen. Roger Victory, a Hudsonville Republican and longtime vegetable farmer. 

A longstanding alliance

When Stabenow was on the ballot in previous Senate elections, she was often one of the few Democrats getting endorsements from powerful  agricultural groups like the Michigan Farm Bureau’s AgriPAC Committee. 

That year, Stabenow won reelection against Republican candidate John James by 6.5 percentage points, making it the closest U.S. Senate election in Michigan since 2000. 

In that race and in others, the farm vote has been “absolutely crucial to her wins,” said Czuba, the pollster.

No candidate has yet emerged as the clear choice among agricultural interests to replace Stabenow. AgriPAC hasn’t yet endorsed in the 2024 cycle, and many farmers and advocates Bridge spoke with said they’re still waiting to learn more about candidates’ agricultural priorities.  


The longstanding alliance between Stabenow and agriculture was largely built on her delivery of multiple bipartisan farm bills — massive, multibillion-dollar legislation that sets farm policy for five years and funds a wide array of agricultural supports and nutrition programs. 

She’s currently working on the latest iteration of the farm bill, though disagreements with House and Senate Republicans mean a five-year plan might be delayed until after her retirement. 

Stabenow’s commitment to agriculture has “played a huge role in why I'm still farming, why my father and my grandfather are still farming,” said Chad Reenders, a blueberry farmer in west Michigan and president of the Michigan Blueberry Advisory Committee. 

“I’m a little cautious as we look at the future, wondering who’s going to step in her shoes — hopefully they’ll be able to fill those shoes and keep working with us,” said Reenders, who hasn’t taken a position on the 2024 race. 

Ongoing support of long-term farm bills are of utmost importance for farmers working to keep up with challenges like supply chain issues, inflation, long-term effects of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, said John Kran, national legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau.

Equally important, Kran said, is ensuring agriculture issues remain bipartisan, a tradition he said Stabenow worked to protect. 

“The last farm bill was the most bipartisan in history,” he said. “I don't know that we'll have it this time, but I think that just goes to show how important it is to build coalitions.” 

Regardless of who is elected to replace her, Stabenow’s powerful committee position will almost undoubtedly go to a lawmaker from another state, industry insiders said, disrupting Michigan farmers’ access to Congress.

“It's hard to overstate the loss for Michigan agriculture,” said Chuck Lippstreu, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association representing agriculture retailers, food processors and other farm-adjacent businesses.  

Debbie Stabenow is standing in a farm field. She is talking to a man in overalls
Stabenow has served on agriculture committees in the state Legislature and Congress and has been chair of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee since 2011. (Courtesy Office of Sen. Debbie Stabenow)

Why agriculture matters

Agriculture is one of Michigan’s biggest industries, contributing an estimated $104.7 billion annually to the state’s economy and employing about 17 percent of the state’s workforce, according to Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development figures. 

Michigan is also one of the nation’s most agriculturally diverse states, with farmers producing more than 300 types of commercial crops and products. 

Farmers, agribusiness groups and other observers who spoke with Bridge said Stabenow’s part in building out the industry can’t be overstated, citing her role in securing protections for fruit and vegetable growers, financial support for dairy farmers, promotion of agricultural exports and cultivation of agricultural research at Michigan State University and other institutions. 

“Before I was in the Senate, fruits and vegetables were not anywhere part of the farm bill…no funding, nothing,” Stabenow told Bridge Michigan. “We broadened it out so that the farm bill policy covers all kinds of agriculture, all of Michigan's small farmers, big farms, and expanded to urban agriculture.”

In 2014, at Stabenow’s urging, then-President Barack Obama signed that year’s farm bill on MSU’s campus. 

“She’s been a huge supporter of everything at Michigan State and the state of Michigan, certainly in the ag bio area,” MSU President Kevin Guskiewicz told Bridge. “So are we worried? Yeah, because losing somebody who has been an advocate for this for so many years is a loss.”

Stabenow’s exit feels especially acute for fruit farmers, who fear grants, eligibility for crop insurance and other gains made under her tenure may backslide if the next committee chair is from a state with less agricultural diversity.

Juliette King-McAvoy, vice president of sales and marketing at King Orchards fruit farm in Northwest Michigan, said agriculture, particularly specialty crop growers, are at a “very critical and vulnerable moment” amid a changing climate, rising labor costs and pressure from lower-priced international imports. 

“It definitely is a concern that the transition will come, and we will lose the spotlight,” she said. 

Ignoring farmers’ needs would risk the state’s economic future and could put any Senate candidate’s campaign in peril, Victory, the state lawmaker, said. 

“That is something I do believe will come into play in this race,” Victory said. “It is really critical to have somebody that does not just see it from a 30,000-foot level, but can get down to the granular level of all the diversity we have in the state of Michigan and agriculture.”

Debbie Stabenow is wearing red. Roger Victory is wearing a grey t-shirt. They are at a farm
Stabenow, pictured with state Sen. Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville, at Victory Farms. Victory said he sees farmers playing a key role in the 2024 election. (Courtesy Office of Sen. Debbie Stabenow)

Where potential successors stand 

Agricultural support could be key to clinching both a primary nomination and a general election win for Michigan U.S. Senate candidates, as all signs point to a tossup between Republicans and Democrats. 

Slotkin, a congresswoman who has a national security background is one of two candidates seeking the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. She currently lives on a family farm in Holly, which was once part of Hygrade Meat Company run by her grandfather, Hugo Slotkin.

She serves on the House Agriculture Committee and said she sees food security and the future of farming as a national security issue critical to Michigan and the nation’s success. 

Slotkin told Bridge she’s been “drinking from the fire hose” on agricultural issues to try to bring herself up to speed, calling Stabenow the “queen of agriculture” and her primary mentor on farming issues. 

Former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, who has endorsed Slotkin, said the U.S. House member has already represented agricultural communities in Oakland, Livingston and Shiawassee counties and could be a natural fit for voters seeking a new agricultural champion in Congress. 

“Agriculture is really important, and it's in rural areas where a lot of times Republicans do well,” Blanchard said. Slotkin has “been competitive in conservative areas, which a lot of Democrats aren't able to do.” 

Both Slotkin and her Democratic primary opponent, Detroit actor Hill Harper, have said they’d seek placement on the Senate’s agriculture committee if elected.

During a Wednesday press conference, Harper said he would prioritize benefits for small family farms and fight against an “aggressive attack on SNAP benefits,” referencing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps low-income families buy food.


For Rogers, a former congressman considered a front runner for the GOP nomination, top agricultural priorities include removing regulatory barriers for farmers, reforming the H-2A visa program to provide access to more agricultural labor and renegotiating trade deals to protect farmers from subsidized foreign imports.

Rogers is holding off on discussing committee aspirations until after the election to see where he could best help Michigan, according to his campaign. 

Former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, also running for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination, opposed multiple farm bills during his tenure in Congress, in one instance joining a small group of conservatives to block passage of what eventually became the 2014 law

Ahead of the 2018 farm bill’s passage, Amash wrote on social media that the farm bill was “loaded with corporate welfare and subsidies,” and he argued that “every conservative should oppose it.”

Business executive Sandy Pensler and physician Sherry O’Donnell round out the Republican primary slate.

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