Archive for February, 2011

Minnesota grower goes to Congo to teach basic farming techniques

By Jonathan Eisenthal

Dwight Mork, who farms near Madison, Minnesota, has been to the small, remote community of Bunia, in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa two times now. The town has given rise to a school aimed at educating orphans, which includes a hospital and a farm in its complex.

Mork said he has felt deeply privileged to go to this place ravaged by a ten year civil war and help the people rebuild their lives.

His friend (and distant relation) Glenn Mork heard the call for this mission after he retired from his career in law enforcement and now goes twice a year to the African Hope Center for Children in Bunia. He told Dwight that their farm operation needed help.

The first time Mork went, the Massey Ferguson tractor that was to be shipped from England had not arrived as scheduled, and since his purpose for the trip was to teach effective techniques for plowing and planting he told them he would return. He could tell they didn’t quite believe him.

When he came back to Bunia this February, he was greeted with open arms and warm smiles, and he was able to teach four men, two of whom had never driven any motorized vehicle, how to operate the tractor that will help them plant the local bean (like a Navy bean) and white corn, as well as helping with other tasks on the farm where they raise sweet potatoes and bananas as their other staples. They are also thinking of trying wheat.

“It’s all about the people,” said Mork. “There’s no nightlife there, there’s nothing to see that a tourist would come to check out. But meeting the people, eating the food, hanging out with them and playing with the kids–those are the things that make this a great experience.”

Mork and others who go on the mission pay their own way, so that no funds are diverted from the mission of educating, feeding and caring for about a thousand orphaned children who attend the school free of charge.

The mission is shipping over a container this August that will contain a two or four row cultivator and a four-row planter and there will be a group going over to put the equipment back together. Mork noted that anyone who is interested is welcome to participate.

One young man that learned the tractor basics from Mork had fled his village with his little sister and lived in the wild for more than a year.

“When they heard gunfire in the east, they would run west, and when they heard it in the west, they ran east, and for more than a year they lived by scrounging, and stealing little bits of food,” said Mork.

Despite such harrowing experiences, these children are finding a new, normal way of life. They are housed with widows–another thing in plentiful supply in a land where conservative estimates say four to five million people perished. So Glenn and Dwight and the others on this trip brought 40 frisbees, soccer balls and jump ropes and found a lot of kids ready to have fun.

Getting to Bunia is no simple task–eight hours to Amsterdam, another eight hours to Entebbe, Uganda, and then a 70 minute flight in a nine-seater plane. Entebbe, which is located right on Lake Victoria and the Upper Nile River, did allow Mork to take a day and go on a whitewater rafting excursion.

The climate in Bunia is a pleasant, temperate one, with two wet seasons and two dry seasons, which allows local farmers to raise two crops a year. The community is at 3,000 feet elevation, so the air is dry and never got above 88 when Mork was there, though this is the hottest time of year. The soil there is a lot like you would find in western Minnesota, which makes it easier for farmers from here to share expertise.

“It was rewarding experience,” said Mork, who is willing to come and speak about his trip for church and community groups. “When my wife, Dawn, and I retire we can foresee going overseas to help–maybe through Fellowship of Christian Farmers–they build churches and homes. I enjoy different cultures. I like trying new foods, seeing how people live. The biggest part is the people. In Uganda I went into the kitchen and helped make breakfast–it was so much fun.

Readers can find out more about Bunia’s Hope Center for Children at

Franken touts viability of renewable energy for rural Minnesota

(By Linda Vanderwerf, published by West Central Tribune, Willmar)
WILLMAR – Renewable energy could be the driving force behind economic growth in rural Minnesota, U.S. Sen. Al Franken said Wednesday.

Franken toured some local energy projects in Willmar after spending a day and a half in Morris on a similar tour. He was recently appointed to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“I’ve always felt this part of Minnesota can be an economic engine that renewable energy is at the center of,” Franken said during a visit to the Tribune offices Wednesday afternoon.

In Willmar, he met with city and Kandiyohi County officials and learned more about renewable energy projects in the area, including several geothermal projects and the city’s wind turbines.

In Morris, Franken toured renewable energy projects at the University of Minnesota-Morris, the West Central Research and Outreach Center and the Agricultural Research Service Soils Lab in Morris on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. He also participated Wednesday morning in a two-hour Energy Roundtable Forum at UMM.

Franken said he has worked to maintain tax credits for ethanol and biodiesel producers, something he feels will support jobs in rural Minnesota.
(Full article at

Our Take:
Here’s someone who gets it. Minnesota is lucky to have two Senators and a delegation in the House that gets renewable energy, for the most part.

Now, what people who know about the incredible value of ethanol, especially to rural communities, but also as a foundation for a more secure national economy–what we ethanol supporters need to worry about is educating the 100 freshmen Representatives entering Congress now, many of whom are from urban and suburban districts, who feel that their real mandate is to cut every piece of government spending possible.

While we applaud government efficiency and deplore the ballooning deficit, there may be some cuts that will be penny wise and pound foolish. Keeping support for ethanol at this critical time in its growth is essential.

This is the challenge–to convince them that spending on ethanol, particularly on the expansion of infrastructure that will make high ethanol blends available to the broad driving public, is an investment with an immediate return in jobs, economic activity, energy independence, and environmental benefits.

MCGA scouts for the next crop of Agvocates

By Jonathan Eisenthal

Telling the non-farming public about the value of agriculture has become one of the top agenda items for all farmers to ensure that the public understands what farming is and continues to support it. One way Minnesota Corn Growers Association is helping to spread agriculture’s story is through their Agvocate program, which is just wrapping up its first year.

On Tuesday, MCGA sent information to colleges and universities across the region to recruit the next group of young people who will take part in this program. In exchange for leadership development opportunities and a scholarship towards their education, MCGA enlists the energetic efforts of four students currently in post-secondary education or training programs to help advocate on agriculture’s behalf.

Students must be between 18 and 24 years old but do not need to come from a farming background to qualify. While preference is given for students in agricultural disciplines, this is not a requirement. Rather, Agvocates are students willing to commit a year to learning in greater depth about production agriculture and then to develop his or her own particular communication package to spread that knowledge to the general public. The application deadline is April 15 with MCGA staff selecting the next group of Agvocates by May 25.

“We had a great first year with the Agvocate program and with this upcoming year, we’re adding some more leadership and social media activities to the requirements,” noted Jenna Kromann, MCGA outreach & communications specialist who oversees the Agvocate program. “These students will be attending MCGA Day on the Hill (an event that brings farmers to the state capital in Saint Paul to meet with lawmakers) and each will also create their own ag-oriented Facebook page and manage that daily or begin a Twitter account and tweet daily to bring agriculture’s story to the general public.”

Agvocates will also write at least three posts to the MCGA blog, Minnesota Cornerstone ( and other MCGA publications, with the aim of coming away from their Agvocate year with a portfolio that measures the student’s accomplishments which will help the student pursue more learning and leadership opportunities in the future.

To find out more about applying to be an MCGA Agvocate, click here.

Canadians make their case for oil exports

Oil from Alberta’s tar sands beats Middle Eastern imported crude on environmental metrics, Canadians argue.

(By NEAL ST. ANTHONY, Star Tribune)

Minnesota imports most of the oil and natural gas that helps drive our economic engine from Canada, the Saudi Arabia of the north.

“And you don’t need a U.S. battle group to protect it,” Ronald Liepert, the Alberta oil minister, reminded me last week on a visit to Minneapolis.

Canada, largely because of Alberta’s vast deposits of oil sands, has the second-largest known oil reserves in the world.

Our No. 1 trading partner to the north, which also is a healthy democracy and buys $4 billion-plus worth of Minnesota goods annually, provides about a 25 percent of the more than 12 million barrels per day of imported oil that Americans consume.

Canada, through its western oil sands, is increasing daily production from 2 million to 3 million barrels over the next several years. Although it doesn’t bear the higher risks of deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, tar sands production still presents significant environmental concerns.

That’s why Liepert and Alberta’s top diplomat in Washington, Gary Mar, are part of a Canadian offensive to address concerns in America about those “dirty tar sands” that critics say are an environmental disaster. The thick bitumen must be heated with steam from natural-gas fired boilers in order to strain the thick oil and send it by pipeline to our Pine Bend or other U.S. refineries.

Our Take:
We believe most Minnesotans would prefer not to be a party to the longterm environmental degradation that Alberta provincials are trading for jobs and an economic boost.

When you balance the equation of energy needs and environmental impacts, Minnesota -made ethanol comes out ahead of oil whether it comes from Saudi wells so sweet they almost bubble up pure gasoline, or Alberta tar sands.

Here’s a report on the tar sand mining process that appeared in National Geographic in 2009:
“Getting oil from oil sands is simple but not easy. The giant electric shovels that rule the mines have hardened steel teeth that each weigh a ton, and as those teeth claw into the abrasive black sand 24/7, 365 days a year, they wear down every day or two; a welder then plays dentist to the dinosaurs, giving them new crowns. The dump trucks that rumble around the mine, hauling 400-ton loads from the shovels to a rock crusher, burn 50 gallons of diesel fuel an hour; it takes a forklift to change their tires, which wear out in six months. And every day in the Athabasca Valley, more than a million tons of sand emerges from such crushers and is mixed with more than 200,000 tons of water that must be heated, typically to 175°F, to wash out the gluey bitumen. At the upgraders, the bitumen gets heated again, to about 900°F, and compressed to more than 100 atmospheres—that’s what it takes to crack the complex molecules and either subtract carbon or add back the hydrogen the bacteria removed ages ago. That’s what it takes to make the light hydrocarbons we need to fill our gas tanks. It takes a stupendous amount of energy. In situ extraction, which is the only way to get at around 80 percent of those 173 billion barrels, can use up to twice as much energy as mining, because it requires so much steam.”

The area in Alberta where these tar sands can be found is 1,356 square miles, roughly the size of North Carolina. In 2009, when the area was producing a quarter of the proposed 3 million barrels a day, Canadian oil concerns had already flattened 150 square miles of northern old growth forest and left a moonscape of dust and toxic tailing ponds, according to the National Geographic report which mentioned an incident in which a flock of mallard ducks mistook one of the tailing ponds for a pristine northern lake and made the fatal decision to land in the polluted waters.

Increasing Minnesota’s use of ethanol may or may not slow down this ecological disaster, but perhaps less of the dirt will be on our hands.

Read the National Geographic article on Canadian tar sands:

Farmers gather to learn the latest on nutrient management

by Jonathan Eisenthal

Last Tuesday, farm conservation experts–commercial farm producers and the service providers who help them succeed–sounded an optimistic note about the future of weaving together profitable agricultural production and environmentally sound conservation practices. It’s a trend that’s already well underway, an audience of several hundred farmers and crop consultants were told at the fifth annual Nutrient Efficiency and Management Conference in Rochester.

The most well subscribed portion of a packed agenda was the panel discussion, which featured two agronomists, a crop consultant and a dairy farmer.

Ron Durst of Durst Brothers Dairy described the operation he and his two brothers run in Mantorville, where they milk 1,500 dairy cows, grow the crops that feed the dairy cattle and raise a herd to provide all the replacement cattle they need.

Jon Schmitz said his current work with dairy producers on systems to store and utilize manure has him quite optimistic about the future of improved water quality. A native of Sleepy Eye, Schmitz worked for a decade for Christensen Farms–one of the largest hog operations in the United States, and now works as an agronomist for Progressive Ag Center LLC, where he provides nutrient management planning for dairy and swine operations.

Schmitz said, “I’m a tech service provider for NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and I think that if the government continues to fund projects, like the manure storage facilities that help producers plan and build, then I think water quality in southeast Minnesota is only going to improve. Meeting with growers and educating them about the availability of nutrients in manure, the (nitrogen) credits for legumes (like Alfalfa) has benefitted water quality and it will continue to improve water quality.”

Targeting manure application by following what is revealed in soil tests and grid mapping shows immediate results, according to a review by experts from Minnesota and Wisconsin Discovery Farms projects. Another key piece of information has flowed from the Discovery Farm’s practice of measure runoff year-round. They have discovered that about two thirds of the manure related nutrients that are lost from fields are lost from frozen ground, in the months of February and March. The experts are quite optimistic about using this kind of information to develop best management practices that will keep more nutrients on the crop land, where they can do some good.

Panelist Chris Soltau said he is concerned about nitrates in drinking water in southeastern, Minnesota. As a resident of Goodhue County, and an agronomist with Ag Partners Coop, Soltau is proud of the work he does, selling farmers the inputs they need to successful raise crops but he wants to promote the best possible methods to prevent as much nitrogen loss as possible. When asked about what he hopes for in future research, Soltau said continued and expanded research on nitrogen best management practices. He believes the more real-world, on-farm results farmers see, the more confidence they will have in University-published BMPs. In turn, this will lead to broader use of techniques like targeted application, the correct nutrient credit for various crop rotations, among others.

The right balance of manure and commercial fertilizer is the next step in a series of steps which have allowed Minnesota corn producers to increase their yield by 38 percent in the last two decades while reducing the amount of nitrogen per bushel of corn down to 0.8 pounds per bushel. During the panel discussion, Crop Consultant Lynn Lagerstedt of Farm-Tech Crop/GPS Services in Adams said one current trend is spreading a light volume of manure over a wider area, to bring potassium and phosphorous levels to the recommended level, and then to make up for the nitrogen deficit inherent in this lower volume of manure by supplementing with commercial fertilizer. The soil profile improves from adding organic matter, while the additional N ensures the crop yield will be optimal.

Durst said that nutrient management pays off. Across Minnesota, many corn producers had banner years, but Durst believes attentive nutrient management contributed to their yield average of 200 bushels per acre.

MCR&PC district representative David Ward, who raises hogs in addition to corn and soybeans found a lot to like in the presentations about the work of Discovery Farms, a project jointly underwritten by Minnesota’s corn, soybeans and turkey grower organizations.

“As regulations and best management practices develop we just need to make sure they are realistic, and flexible, while still creating water quality benefits–that’s what will give us the best chance to ensure that producers can really use them,” said Ward.

Goss Report: Ag drives growth in Minnesota, Iowa

(Excerpts from the latest report on leading economic indicators by Prof Ernie Goss, economist, Creighton University)

Minnesota: Minnesota’s leading economic indicator was above growth neutral for the 18th straight month. The Business Conditions Index advanced to 55.2 from December’s softer 52.0. Components of the index for January were new orders at 56.0, production or sales at 61.9, delivery lead time at 58.3, inventories at 49.5, and employment at 50.5.  “The state’s agriculture is the second largest among the nine Mid-America states. Thus expansions among firms tied to agriculture and international markets have been an important component of Minnesota’s recent growth.  On the other hand, the state’s construction industry continues to slow overall state job growth. I expect the state to continue to add jobs for the first half of 2011. This pace will be stronger than the last half of 2010,” said Goss.

Iowa: For the 13th straight month, Iowa’s Business Conditions Index climbed above growth neutral. The index, a leading economic indicator from a survey of supply managers, climbed to 64.0 from 56.8 in December. Components of the Business Conditions Index for January were new orders at 78.2, production or sales at 68.0, delivery lead time at 65.8, employment at 53.5, and inventories at 54.6. “With the largest agriculture sector among the nine Mid-America states, Iowa’s industries linked to agriculture, except for food processing, have experienced very healthy growth over the past several months.  This growth will continue for the first half of 2011 particularly for durable goods producers tied to agriculture and the global economy,” said Goss.
Our Take:
It’s a story we need to repeat every day–the Midwest (and America) depends on agriculture–not just as our source of economical, abundant food, fiber and energy, but also as a source of economic strength. The investment in agriculture and value-added agricultural enterprises pays off handsomely–the result is maintaining strength through rocky economic times and emerging sooner from recession than would otherwise happen. Anyone who doesn’t think the farm safety net and public policy favoring farm-based energy are good investments should watch the Goss report and see how consistently agriculture figures as a positive force in our economy.

The financing discussions were part of a relationship with a Saudi-U.S. development firm.


Start-ups head to Saudi Arabia for capital

(published by Star Tribune newspaper, written by WENDY LEE)

Kristine Sundberg of Fresh EcoHarvest has struggled to gain the money she needs to prove that her company’s technology to grow fruits and vegetables indoors works.

Sundberg says none of the Minnesota investors she’s talked to over the past year have called the concept a bad idea. But many were too skittish to give the $5 million to $10 million her start-up needs to demonstrate how it can grow produce without sunlight or soil.

Now, she’s seeking that investment in Saudi Arabia.

Fresh EcoHarvest was one of five Minnesota businesses that traveled to Saudi Arabia earlier this month as part of a larger initiative by the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota to improve investment in start-ups. The companies went for a variety of reasons, whether it was to find a distributor or clinical site, set up a strategic partnership or land financing.

The BioBusiness Alliance set up a business relationship with Al Khaymah Establishment USA, a Saudi-U.S. development firm. The other participating Minnesota companies were ethanol production systems manufacturer Easy Energy Systems, diagnostics firm Ativa Medical, drug development company Exsulin Corp., and molecular engineering company Odin Industries.

The alliance is targeting companies involved in agriculture, water, renewable energy, health care and pharmaceuticals. Al Khaymah would be paid based on its performance if a Minnesota company lands a deal in Saudi Arabia.

Our Take:
What’s wrong with this picture?

Minnesota companies, including modular small-scale ethanol production technology manufacturer Easy Energy Systems, can’t get the capital they need to grow their business in-state or even inside the country. At the same time, Minnesota exports nearly 90 percent of its transportation energy dollars.

How about spending more of our energy dollars here in Minnesota — the returns would be capital to fuel growth for these promising new companies.

Can there be a more compelling argument for a much more comprehensive American energy policy that makes domestic, renewable energy production the next Apollo project?

Ask any business in Minnesota what is the biggest issue for economic development and they will tell you capital availability–the lack of it– is the number one challenge.

That makes Minnesota’s homegrown ethanol a jobs issue, a pro-business issue, and an element of future economic AND environmental sustainability for our state.

If you starve corn ethanol, the livestock industry and other industries that produce Minnesota’s capital, you are heading off a greener future for all of us.