Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

University of Minnesota Student Reflects on his “Vern-alization” while Studying Agriculture

University of Minnesota Profressor Vernon Caldwell

University of Minnesota professor Vernon Caldwell is retiring after 45 years.

By Nick Peterson

This past winter one of my professors at the University of Minnesota retired after spending the last 45 years with the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics. It was bittersweet, since I had learned a great deal from him through my time with the Crops and Soils Club, Crops Team, and his classes.His name is Vernon Cardwell, previous professor/advisor/researcher at the University of Minnesota for the better part of the last century. As he spoke during the retirement party, he recalled the different “vern-alizations” he had witnessed with undergraduate and graduate students. With vernalization meaning acquisition of a plants ability to flower following cold periods, it was a metaphor of his students.Growing up on the family farm it was not difficult to realize that agriculture is what I wanted to continue to pursue in my career. However, the agricultural industry is a very broad field with many opportunities. As I was accepted to the University of Minnesota, College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, I was still very uncertain as to where I wanted to end up following graduation.

As I attended my first Gophers Crops and Soils Club meeting, I met and talked to Vern, who was the faculty advisor for the club. Soon after, following persuasion from Vern, I decided to join the crops judging team, where we competed against students at other schools in weed and crop identification, grain grading, and seed analysis. Since the 1970’s Vern has been leading the University to top ranked finishes, although participation had been waning in the last few years. This is when my Vern-alization began.

As I spent more time looking at plant and seed mounts and taking in all the information that Vern was spewing out, I couldn’t help but notice him slowly having an effect on me. The vast amount of agricultural knowledge that he had acquired over his many years of research, extension, and interaction with students was a little intimidating. I tried to soak up as much of it as I could.

Looking at my Vern-alization, though, it wasn’t so much the knowledge but the activism that he inspired in me that I would attribute to it. What makes him such a successful mentor to students is his ability to inspire this activism.

So, as I look towards graduation and opportunities in the agriculture industry in agronomy or seed representative roles, I continue to look back and use his contagious personality as a template for myself. I have no doubt this outlook will not only strengthen my commitment to clubs and organizations that I put my time into, but it will enable me to see the best in people as well.

The agricultural community was lucky to have a man like Vernon Cardwell influencing its students for the last 45 years. And so my Vern-alization proceeds, as I am ready to follow in my mentor’s footsteps and do what I can to better agriculture and the people within.

Nick Peterson is a participant in Minnesota Corn Growers Association’s Agvocate program.

Minnesota Well Represented at Commodity Classic 2013

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Thousands of farmers converged on Kissimmee, Florida (near Orlando) February 28 through March 2, for the unparalleled opportunities to network, to catch up on the latest technologies and tools of the trade and to forge a united political voice–all the benefits of Commodity Classic, one of the nation’s largest agricultural conferences. In addition to the tradeshow, exhibition and learning events, Commodity Classic includes the annual meetings of National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), as well as meetings of the soybean, wheat and sorghum growers organizations.

Minnesota’s Corn Organizations were amply represented by more than two dozen grower leaders and many others along for the learning and enjoyment.

“Commodity Classic brings so many of us farmers together, so we can learn, so we can understand what issues we need to take to the public and the lawmakers and policymakers so that we can keep farming strong, and be the best, most productive farmers we can be,” said Tom Haag, a farmer in Eden Valley, Minnesota, who serves as president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

A key element of the three-day gathering is consensus-building for the direction of the 34,000-plus member NCGA. By gathering with the other farmer groups, the common bond of farmers is strengthened, and a stronger voice for farmers develops.

“Having these discussions in a respectful, public way–that’s a big part of the reason for having our annual meeting and delegate sessions,” said Greg Schwarz, past MCGA president and current chairman of the MCGA government relations committee. Schwarz farms in LeSueur, Minnesota. He said, “Our grassroots determine what we do as an organization. Our farmers express their opinions and then our staff and our lobbyists carry that out.”

The number one concern for farmers across the country remains the passage of the long-delayed Farm Bill. For Minnesota’s corn organizations and many other groups, the public support that allows broad participation in crop insurance seems to be the most fundamental, strategic element in preserving independent family farms and assuring that the collective know-how they possess continues to give America the safe, abundant, economical food supply that is the envy of the world.

“There were many informal conversations going on about the Farm Bill, and the gist of the ones I took part in, is the need for unity and finding some kind of middle ground on issues that have divided some of the farm groups,” said Schwarz. “There is a recognition that, to pass a Farm Bill under regular order in Congress, we have to be unified, or Congress members may be confused on how to vote.”

Other key issues received discussion and resolutions, including support for keeping the current Renewable Fuels Standard and developing a single label for E15 fuel to be used everywhere, in order to prevent confusion among consumers. NCGA opposed single-state rules on GMO labeling in order to prevent having 50 different sets of regulations. The resolution supports the FDA’s power to pre-empt rules on agricultural biotechnology products, passed by individual states.

Another NCGA resolution opposes tying crop insurance eligibility to conservation compliance, arguing that the current farm program already provides a robust means to ensure conservation compliance by requiring farmers obey conservation rules in order to receive any form of federal farm support.

“We put a resolution together to say that ‘We support local ownership of corn processing, livestock and grain operations,'” Schwarz reported. He said, “The local ownership part is what really gets the value back to our rural communities and provides a good consistent tax base for rural communities. We wanted to put this down in black and white, so that when the next new thing comes along that makes use of farm products… whether it’s biochemicals, or nutriceuticals or energy–we are on record that we support local ownership so that we get some of those dollars back to local communities. We have seen that value with ethanol companies and livestock facilities in Minnesota and we want to support these industries and keep them strong. This is not just about farmer ownership, but also supporting our neighbors in town owning businesses that add value to agricultural commodities, as long as it’s local–if it’s an ethanol plant in a farming community or a biochemical company in a Minnesota suburb–whenever we can have some local ownership we get so much more out of it than if some large multinational company owns it.”

A number of first-timers to Commodity Classic joined the veterans, and saw for themselves that the three-day event deserves its reputation for being an incredibly valuable experience.

“I’ve heard it said how large Commodity Classic is, and how many people there are, and the number of displays, and the awesome scope of things…but seeing it for myself was still amazing,” said Chuck DeGrote, a grower leader on the MCGA board of directors, and a farmer in Clara City who raises corn, soybeans, sugar beets and cattle. He said, “The networking at the exhibition hall, talking to people from other states, people who are active in other commodity organizations, I got to hear what people are thinking about for the future, some of the projects we could be looking into. The people are what make Commodity Classic a special experience.”

DeGrote felt discussions about the Farm Bill and the Renewable Fuels Standard were interesting and gave reason for farmers to work together and to be optimistic about what can be done, even with today’s need for a fiscally constrained approach to the federal government.

Opportunities for Bright Young Minds

By Agvocate Nick Peterson

Most of us cannot help it.  If you find yourself perusing through all of the Yahoo news stories every other day as they pop up on your home page, you are not alone.  While I do not rely on Yahoo to base my life decisions on, I do use it to brush up on current events that I might be missing out on. I also use Yahoo to find weird or interesting stories that entertain me.  Perhaps it is common among the younger generations, but I assume that on some level, the authors of these short current event stories have at least a shred of credibility. 

The issue that I currently have and am bringing up yet once again is a story that came to my attention last spring on “useless” college majors. This caught my attention because the article listed agriculture as one of the five most useless degrees.

Many people in the agricultural industry most likely have heard or were involved with the backlash that already erupted from this article.  I know my Facebook page, in which I am connected to many agricultural majors and enthusiasts, pretty much exploded.  The reason agricultural enthusiasts were upset (in addition to the damage to our pride) was due to this study misusing statistics to prove a point that is inaccurate. This statistic could potentially drive bright young students away from seeking a degree in an agricultural profession. 

The best defense is a good offense. 

I recently spoke with a professor of mine at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Vernon Cardwell.  We spoke about the current state of the agricultural field and its demand for Bachelor of Science majors.    According to the conversations he has had with industry professionals, as well as the attention that companies in the industry have directed at us undergraduate students, the demand for Bachelor of Science graduates is almost twice the supply.  As a junior pursuing my Applied Plant Science degree at the University of Minnesota, this information makes me feel pretty good about my future. 

Dr. Cardwell also mentioned that the majority of this push by the industry for Bachelor of Science graduates comes from a need for more knowledgeable agronomists.  Seed companies, such as Monsanto and Pioneer, have realized that the seed market depends on more than just the bag of seed.  The ability of a seed representative to place each bag of seed in the field or each soil type that will garner the highest yields is a must.  Therein lies the need for more qualified agronomists to either place that seed or train the seed representative who will. 

Winfield’s Answer Plots are an example of an attempt by seed companies to engage with growers on a more knowledgeable, cutting edge level.  By looking at current field issues and ways to correct or prevent them in the future, they are selling agronomic advice in addition to the traditional product sales.  As evidenced by the success that programs such as these Answer Plots have brought to their companies, this is a valuable business tool.  Since this area is only expanding, it will mean more jobs for agronomists. 

The industry of plant breeding relies heavily on the ever evolving molecular and genetic lab processes to produce the high yielding hybrids and varieties we see planted today.  Dollars invested in research and development by seed companies certainly are not dwindling with the high corn and soybean prices.  These companies are looking for graduates with lab experience to fuel their research.  For example, Pioneer just opened a $40 million plant genetics research facility that will create 400 new jobs.

This is an opportunity for graduates who may not even have an interest in the agronomic field, but rather enjoy lab and molecular level work. 

One part of the agricultural industry that is under-appreciated when comparing ag majors to others majors is the availability and profitability of internships.  First, in many other majors or professions, internships might not even be paid.  These are invaluable opportunities for undergraduates to both help pay for schooling as well as get real world, on the job experience.  Second, internships often lead to full time positions following graduation. Third, the wide availability of internships to undergraduate students is something that I feel few other professions can offer.  Whether it is through fall internship fairs on campus, direct searches, or virtual job agents through programs such as GoldPass at the U of M (through which a rough estimate of forty internships were posted and sent to my email inbox this fall), agriculture is one industry that does not fail to give prospective employees hands on work experience. 

I realize that it may be difficult for graduates to start a farming business on their own without a personal or family connection to a farm due to the high land prices and capital investment. However, this is not where the bulk of agricultural jobs are located.  The agronomist positions, plant breeding, and lab positions are where the real demand for agricultural jobs are located; these areas are booming right now.  In my Applied Plant Science major at the University of Minnesota, the students boast close to a one hundred percent placement rate following graduation.  This is why I don’t see myself as concerned about my future as other students in other majors at this university.

It is time for the younger generation to realize all the opportunities we have in agriculture. Misused statistics that pop up on laptops should not deter students from considering studying this industry.  The growth of the agricultural field is spurring our food production. Making the decision to pursue a career in agriculture is one that I have never looked back on throughout my collegiate career and I know that I will not regret it in the future.

Eons at the verge of prairie and forest created “Lester”

The highly productive, clayey soil now designated “Minnesota State Soil”

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Some 400,000 acres, across 17 counties in south central Minnesota are home to some of the most productive soil on earth, called Lester soil. Legislation signed in April by Gov. Mark Dayton recognized Lester as the state soil of Minnesota, and a series of programs to celebrate Lester and all of Minnesota’s soils is now underway, including an exhibit called Dig It!, opening Nov. 10 at the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus.

“Lester is well drained, with a nice, thick ‘a-horizon’ — that black surface soil,” said Gary Elsner, a soil scientist at Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “There are a thousand different soil series in Minnesota. Lester is in the well-drained positions which are higher in the landscape (Slopes 5 to 70 percent).”

Elsner chairs the “Perfect Storm for Minnesota Soils” committee of the Minnesota Association of Professional Soil Scientists (MAPSS), which singled out Lester soil as something special back in 1987, but did not succeed in getting the official state seal for it until this year.

“Lester soil formed at the prairie and forest interface,” Elsner said. “Most of southern Minnesota soils were worked around by glaciers, and they have been forming ever since. A forest forms and that influences the soil, then a forest fire clears the land and it becomes prairie. Over a very long time period, it goes back and forth. In forested land you get clays near the surface, and over time these leach down and they accumulate deeper in the profile. So you get a layer that has a higher water-holding capacity and that makes it more productive–both for agriculture and forestry.”

“The Perfect Storm for Minnesota Soils” committee of MAPPS arose to publicize the series of important soil science events taking place last year, this year and next. Ultimately, the committee hopes to use these events to make the public more aware of the incredible importance of productive soil in their everyday lives. The roster of events shows that concern for the health of our soils is nothing new among farmers, foresters and soil scientists. In 2011, it was the 75th anniversary of the Soil Science Society of America. This year is the 150th anniversary of the USDA (inaugurated by Pres. Abraham Lincoln). In addition to successfully passing the soil legislation this year, the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum has a new exhibit, Dig It!, devoted to soil and including soil “monoliths” (glass columns showing the stratifications within soil series like Lester) for all the official soils of the 50 states. The exhibit opens Nov. 10.

For more information on Dig It! go to

The soil events continue, according to Elsner. Next year is both the 100th anniversary of the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate, and the 40th Anniversary of MAPSS. Various tours and special events at locations like the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum are planned.

Elsner noted that MAPSS chose Lester soils for a number of reasons, including that it is photogenic, but its water-storing capacity may be its most important feature, especially in drought years such as Minnesota experienced in 2012 and 1988.

“Whether you’re growing a tree or a corn plant–if you have more water it’s going to grow better,” said Elsner. “When you compare to a sandy soil, you can see how Lester holds more water, and it will do better at producing healthy plants than the sandy soil, when we have dry weather conditions.”

Lester soils were first identified in Lester Prairie, in McLeod County in 1939. According to MAPPS, soil supports 235,000 jobs in Minnesota. Roughly one hundred scientists belong to MAPPS, including state and federal government workers, academics and private industry workers.

Growers make the case for passing a new farm bill, and keeping RFS

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

NCGA Corn Congress, held in Washington DC in July each year, is always an occasion for Minnesota growers to meet legislators and continue the conversation about what will help midwestern farmers keep the American system of raising food the envy of the world: an overwhelmingly safe supply of food available in every region at reasonable prices.

The two political issues that will impact U.S. food production the most in 2012 are a successful conclusion to the drive to pass a Farm Bill, and one of the chief agenda items for corn growers and ethanol producers–keeping the Renewable Fuels Standard intact, and allowing its built-in mechanisms to deal with issues of grain supply.

The 17 Minnesota growers met with the entire Minnesota delegate to Congress, as well as many members of the House Agriculture Committee.

“We told congress members we need to keep the RFS intact, let it work, it’s got provisions designed to handle scenarios like this,” said John Mages, a corn producer in Belgrade, Minnesota, and president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “RFS demands that so much ethanol be used each year. It’s important to remember that, at the beginning of the year, there was a lot of ethanol in surplus, also there is a credit called RINs (Renewable Identification Numbers) that the fuel blenders can use in the place of actual ethanol. Between those things we may be able to meet all the market demand. It’s important also to wait and see exactly how much corn we produce before the government resorts to drastic changes. One message we’ve been bringing to lawmakers is that once there’s a cut back on the mandate, it will be very hard to get back what’s been given it up. So we want to keep it going.”

Among those new to the process of visiting congress people in Washington and carrying the farmer message, were MCGA director Les Anderson and Anna Bellin, MCGA’s new policy director.

“Our message was straightforward,” said Bellin. “We want to get it done. Don’t mess with the RFS, because the market is working. It is easy to blame ethanol for the problems being caused by the drought, but we should be careful not to take apart energy policy that’s just beginning to deliver energy independence–let’s see what the actual corn production is.”

The grower leaders found the lawmakers receptive and supportive of the idea of getting a farm bill passed this year. The Senate has passed a version and now it is up to the House of Representatives.

The whole thing gets tied up in election year politics,” said Bellin. “Members of the ag committee were generally supportive of getting it done, but it comes down to being a leadership decision. A large part of the farm bill is nutrition program spending and that’s getting all tied up in debates about budget cutting.”

Whatever else gets done regarding farm policy, it appears likely that some kind of disaster program for livestock producers will pass, either as part of a regular farm bill, or failing that, as a stand alone extension.

But the farm program is an essential element — without it, farmers cannot plan for the coming crop year.

“Without a farm bill in place I don’t know a single banker that would make a loan to a farmer,” said Lori Feltis, a producer in Stewartville and a representative to the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.

However, success will require an eye to timing.

“It was our effort during our Washington visit to put as much pressure on the House to get it done as we could,” Bellin said. “Congressman Collin Peterson has been extremely supportive of getting it done. He is doing whatever he can to get it across the finish line and we really appreciate it. It’s our intent to keep the pressure on, but there’s also a delicate balance–while we are trying to get it done as quickly as possible, we also want to make sure the votes are there when it comes to a vote.”

Telling the Farming Story

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

For their first duty as Minnesota Corn Growers Association “Agvocates,” Michaela Bengtson, Nick Peterson and Kevin Welter found themselves at a pig farm and at a tannery–they were with 40 other young people for the annual Minnesota Agriculture Ambassadors Institute, held this year in Red Wing, enjoying field trips to area farms and other points of interest.

“It was so much fun,” said Michaela Bengtson, 20, who will be a junior at the U of M this fall. “The wonderful thing about the Ambassador Institute is that I come to it with my dairy background and then I get to meet so many people from different agricultural backgrounds. We toured the Shafer Farms, which is an amazing pork operation, and then we toured the tannery for Red Wing shoes–there are so many facets, not only in farm production, but in all the ways our products get processed into things people need and use every day.”

Kevin Welter, 19, became interested in working as an MCGA Agvocate when he heard a 2011 Agvocate, Greg Tusa, talking about it. He learned from Greg one of the main responsibilities for Agvocates is reaching out to the general public with positive messages about farming, using social media.

“I have both Twitter and Facebook experience, and I’m looking forward to using these to help promote agriculture,” said Welter. “At the Ambassador Institute and with other experiences MCGA provides for us three Agvocates, we’ll have reliable information to share with the consumers. Another key piece of the story is knowing that agriculture is all related–as we meet people involved in all these different areas like pork or dairy or corn, we learn that we can all work together to accomplish our goals and that makes the voice for agriculture stronger.”

Welter grew up on a hog and crop farm in Stewartville. His parents have been active in corn and pork organizations and were recognized by U of M Extension as farm family of the year in Olmsted County for 2008. Welter is impressed by the range of activities MCGA supports, including a personal favorite, the SuperMileage Challenge.

“I participated in the SuperMileage Challenge when I was in high school–I was on Stewartville’s team the first few years they participated, starting in 2009,” said Welter.  “I’m looking forward to working with corn growers when they help out with SMC, and I’m also looking forward to being at FarmFest with MCGA–I’ve been there every year for the past four years.”

Welter will be a sophomore this fall at South Dakota State University, Brookings. His area of study is ag business with an accounting minor, with an eye to becoming a banker at an agricultural lending institution. Bengtson is an agricultural education major and will be a junior this fall at U of M. She hopes to teach high school agriculture classes. Nick Peterson, 20, will also be a junior at the U of M, and majors in applied plant science with a minor in soil science.

Peterson is spending the summer as an intern for Winfield Solutions in Alexandria.  The firm is a branch of Land O’Lakes, and provides seed and crop protection products, as well as technical expertise, through affiliated coops. Peterson’s experience there will dovetail nicely with being an Agvocate. His main responsibility will be helping organize events and communicate with attendees at the Land O’Lakes ‘Answer Plot’ locations near Alexandria. The Answer Plot program collects data on agricultural products and practices at a wide variety of plots across the Midwest.

Peterson found the Ambassadors Institute keynote speaker, a representative of the Minnesota Pork Board, to be very informative.

“He told us that the best way to interact with consumers is to connect with them on values,” said Peterson, who grew up on a crop farm near Clear Lake. “When talking about farming, for instance, we can talk about how it’s a family business, and people connect to that idea immediately in a positive way.”

Home Sweet Home

By 2011-2012 MCGA Agvocate Kelsey Gunderson

College is done and I am ready for summer, excited to be home on the farm for a couple of weeks to relax, right?  It seems like farming and relaxing are not always synonyms as I came home to tractors busy in the field, a request to pick rocks from my dad, and lots of work being done around the house.  It’s planting season, perfect weather for working outside and time to get ready for summer and never a dull moment on the farm.  Farming is not a job or career, it is a lifestyle.

Having livestock and crops, my family’s work is never complete. Caring for the animals, planting and harvesting a high yielding crop and implementing new technologies are all important in our farming operation.  I have learned the skills and gained knowledge through helping on the farm while my brother has learned everything that is needed in running a farm.   My brother is just finishing up his senior year of high school, and will soon be off to his next adventure – college, studying farm operations and management with plans to take over the farm.  He has grown up as my dad’s right hand man, working with him every day and learning all of the tricks to the trade.  Nothing other than farming has interested him so deciding to go to a college near home so he could keep working on the farm was always the plan for him.  He believes in the agriculture industry and knows that his work on the farm plays a key role in our world.

I have seen my brother develop his passion for agriculture and put his skills to work into his future career on the farm.  We are going into our third generation of Gunderson Farms and it is great to see a young generation want to continue to farm.  He has developed skills such as responsibility and teamwork, and has developed a strong work ethic that never quits. I am proud he is continuing to develop our family farm.  

I am proud of the way I was raised, the farm I grew up on and the family that I have. This opportunity is one that many people do not have.  Being raised on a livestock and crop farm has taught me skills that I use in my everyday life and has helped me in my current jobs as well. After experiencing my time in the big city, I realize how much I have learned, gained, and have much more appreciation for farmers everywhere.  Farming is not a career – it truly is a lifestyle. Plans are changed around seasons, weather and the animals, and we work together as a family to get the job done.  I would not be the person I am today without my family and farm experiences.