GreenSeam

Employment Outlook is Promising for New College Graduates in Agriculture

This is a joint press release with Purdue University College of Agriculture.


WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind., December 9, 2020 – A new report, released today by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and Purdue University, shows a strong job demand for new college graduates with degrees in agricultural programs. U.S. college graduates can expect approximately 59,400 job opportunities annually between 2020 and 2025. This reflects a 2.6 percent growth from the previous five years. Employer demand will exceed the supply of available graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher in agriculture-related fields.

“Future development of our complex global food system requires the brightest minds from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and disciplines working together to solve the challenges before us,” said Parag Chitnis, acting director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. “This report shows that students across America who are studying food, agriculture and related sciences to take on these challenges have made a sound career choice and will graduate into a strong and growing job market in the years ahead.” 

The preparation of the report began before the coronavirus pandemic when global socio-economic conditions looked much differently than they do at the release of this report.

“It was extremely challenging to project the success and perseverance of current college students, let alone the employment opportunities that await new graduates during a global pandemic,” said Marcos Fernandez, principal investigator on the project and professor in the College of Agriculture at Purdue University. “Regardless, the project team confidently concludes that the need for graduates and employment opportunities in agricultural fields will remain strong and steady.”

Graduates earning degrees with emphasis in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and the environment (FARNRE) will account for 61 percent of the annual supply pool. Most of the employment opportunities will be in business and management at 42 percent and another 31 percent in science and engineering. Openings anticipated in education, communication and government will make up 14 percent, and 13 percent will be in food and biomaterials production with nearly 92 percent of those jobs going to FARNRE majors.

“Diversity and inclusiveness are strategic for the future workforce,” said Allan Goecker, co-principal investigator and emeritus staff of Purdue University. “For the food, agriculture, renewable resources and environment sector to fully address the needs of the United States, it must reflect the population it services.

“A more diverse and inclusive workforce will support a more innovative and creative agricultural industry for the future,” Goecker said.

Other highlights of the report(link is external) include:
 

  • Over the past two decades and across all levels of degree attainment, more females than males have graduated in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and the environment.
     
  • Some majors tend to attract a greater proportion of female students, including animal sciences, agricultural education, agricultural communication and veterinary medicine.
     
  • Other majors tend to attract more male students, including agricultural engineering, forestry, agronomy and crop science.
     
  • There will be a strong demand for graduates with expertise in data science across all disciplines.
     
  • Expect to see strong employment for specialists in marketing, e-commerce, field technical service, water quality and environment, climate and invasive species, food technology, and environmental and rural policy.

The report, Employment Opportunities for College Graduates in Food, Agriculture, Renewable Natural Resources and the Environment, United States, 2020–2025(link is external) is ninth in a report series of five-year projections initiated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1980.
 

###
GreenSeam

Ag Provisions In The Latest COVID Aid Package – FOCUS ON AG

Written by Kent Thiesse, Farm Management Analyst and Senior Vice President, MinnStar Bank

The “FOCUS ON AG” Column is sent on a weekly basis via e-mail to all interested parties. The Column features timely information on crop and livestock production, farm management and marketing, ag policy, renewable energy, and other timely ag topics.

Previous “FOCUS ON AG” Columns are available on “The FARMER” magazine web site at: https://www.farmprogress.com/focus-ag
or on the MinnStar Bank web site at: https://www.minnstarbank.com/category/focus-on-ag/

After months of debate, Congress passed the COVID-19 Relief Package by a wide margin on December 22, which was signed into law by President Trump on December 27. The legislation authorizes nearly $900 billion in coronavirus related aid, which was part of an overall $1.4 trillion spending bill that will fund the Federal government through September of 2021. The COVID aid package includes financial support and relief for a large segment of the U.S. population and for many small businesses, including farm operations. Many of the direct payments to farmers are built off of previous payments through the CFAP program.

The COVID aid package provides a stimulus payment of $600 to any individual that earned less than $75,000, based on the adjusted gross income (AGI) on their 2019 federal tax return. Married couples with an AGI of less than $150,000 would receive a total payment of $1,200. This is half of the amount that was paid in the Federal stimulus payments under the CARES act last Spring. There would be an additional payment for every child that was claimed on the 2019 tax return. These direct aid payments are expected to be made before the end of 2020. Individuals with an AGI exceeding $99,000 or married couples with an AGI exceeding $198,000 would not be eligible for the stimulus payments. The legislation also extends supplemental unemployment benefits of $300 per week for 11 weeks through March 14, 2021.

A big portion of the latest Caronavirus relief package, approximately $284.5 billion, will be directed to assist small businesses through another round of funding to reopen and strengthen the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) through the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). The PPP loans will be reserved for businesses with less than 300 employees that incurred at least a 25% loss of revenue due to COVID-19. The PPP provisions allow for forgivable loans up to 2.5 times the average monthly payroll costs for the year. The maximum level for PPP loans will be $2 million, and PPP loans of less than $150,000 will have a simplified application process. While specific details on the next round of PPP loans are not yet available, farm business will likely qualify for the PPP loans again, including farm operations that file taxes as sole proprietorships. There were other provisions in the legislation that clarified eligible entities for PPP loans, eligible deductible expenses or PPP loan forgiveness, the loan forgiveness process for PPP loans under $150,000.

Approximately $13 billion in the COVID aid package was allocated toward agriculture related provisions, including about $11.2 billion allocated to USDA to support agriculture producers, processors, and contract growers that were impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. This legislation was more specific than previous COVID relief bills as to how the funding linked to agriculture related programs is to be spent. Following are the provisions in the latest COVID bill that relate to farmers and agriculture:

• Supplemental payments to row crop producers that were paid under the CFAP2 program earlier in 2020. While no specific details have yet been announced, it is likely that the additional payments will be $20 per acre for eligible “price-trigger crops”, which include corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, sorghum and cotton, as well as for the long list of “flat-rate crops” such as alfalfa, sugar beets, oats and flax. One piece of good news for farm operators with 2020 tax management challenges is that the additional payments will not occur until after January 1, 2021.

• Additional direct payments to cattle producers for both market and breeding livestock that specifies payment rates for animal marketed or sold before April 15 and after that date. Payment rates vary depending on the type of cattle and weight for market cattle. There were no provisions for additional payments to hog producers or producers of livestock other than cattle.

• Directs the USDA Ag Secretary to provide additional assistance to some producers of livestock, dairy and specialty crops that had payments reduced by certain provisions in the CFAP1 and CFAP2 program.

• Payments to livestock and poultry producers that had to depopulate their herds or flocks, or had to euthanize market animals, due to COVID-relted disruptions in processing and the supply chain.

• Payments to contract growers of livestock or poultry that had grower contracts cancelled or reduced due to the impacts of COVID-19.

• Additional payments to specialty crop producers that had processing and marketing access reduced due to the pandemic• Provides the USDA Ag Secretary the authority to extend the repayment deadline for CCC marketing loans an additional 3 months, which would extend the maturity date from 9 months after the loan is initiated to a 12-month loan period.

• Specifies that the producers of ethanol and biofuels are eligible for the COVID-related assistance payments, as well as extending certain tax credits for the producers of biofuels.

• Provides for an additional $1.5 billion for food purchases under the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program and similar food aid programs.

• Provides for a 15 percent increase in Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to eligible individuals and families for the next six months.

• Allocates funding to provide grants for small meat and poultry processing plants to upgrade and expand existing processing facilities.

• There were also provisions in the legislation and funds allocated to further assist small dairy producers, to expand rural broadband access, and for farm stress programs.

• In a non-related item, the legislation also fully funds all 2018 and 2019 WHIP+ disaster payments, which many Midwest crop operators qualified for due to crop losses in the 2018 and 2019 crop years. Previously only 50 percent of the funding had been allocated for the 2019 WHIP+ payments. The legislation did not address any provisions for crop losses in the 2020 crop year.

In the coming weeks, there will likely be many more specific details released on the provisions and programs in the COVID relief package related to farm operators, processors, and others in the ag industry. The coronavirus pandemic has caused much personal and economic hardship to families and businesses across the U.S. in 2020, including to many family farm operations. Just as with the CARES legislation earlier this year, the previous PPP payments, and the CFAP payments, it appears that the latest COVID aid package will provide some additional much need financial assistance to many farm operations and other rural businesses.

Update on WHIP+ Payments
According to the latest information from the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), local FSA offices are now authorized to make payments to farmers for any 2018 and 2019 WHIP+ disaster payments on applications that have been reviewed and approved. The WHIP+ disaster payments are for eligible crop losses from the 2018 and 2019 crop years in specific areas of the U.S. Applications for the WHIP+ program closed earlier this Fall. The payments include the entire amount of approved 2018 WHIP+ payments and 50 percent of the approved 2019 WHIP+ payments. These payments may be made by the end of 2020, so farm operators may need to account for these payments when doing 2020 year-end tax management. The funding for the additional 50 percent of the 2019 WHIP+ payments was just passed by Congress; however, those payments will likely not occur until 2021.

Whether or not the 2018 and 2019 WHIP+ payments occur yet in 2020, or are delayed until 2021, will vary from county-to-county, depending on the progress with processing the WHIP+ applications at local FSA offices. If applications were received by the deadline, but have not yet been processed or approved, the eligible WHIP+ payments will likely not be paid to farmers until 2021. Farm operators should check with their local FSA office regarding the status of the 2018 and 2019 WHIP+ payment for their farms.

**********************************************************************
Note — For additional information contact Kent Thiesse, Farm Management Analyst and Senior
Vice President, MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, MN. (Phone — (507) 381-7960);
E-mail — kent.thiesse@minnstarbank.com) Web Site — http://www.minnstarbank.com/

 

New Economic Contribution Study of Agriculture Shows Industry Adds More Than $37B to Minnesota Economy

More than two dozen Minnesota ag organizations collaborated on report

Saint Paul, MINN.—Today, AgriGrowth and more than two dozen leading Minnesota agricultural stakeholder groups released the 2020 Economic Contribution Study of Minnesota Agriculture and Forestry. This comprehensive new report demonstrates the significant contribution agriculture has in Minnesota, from adding $37.1 billion in value to the state’s economy to creating more than 388,000 jobs.

The study was conducted by Decision Innovation Solutions to show the overall economic contribution of agriculture to Minnesota’s economy with further breakdowns by county and industry. Key highlights from the study found that agriculture and related industries in Minnesota are estimated to contribute:

  • $37.1 billion in total value added
  • 388,134 jobs
  • $105.6 billion in output (sales)
  • $21.4 billion in household income

“Agri-food and forestry are an integral part of Minnesota’s economy, and we’ve seen that demonstrated even more this year as our industry innovated, collaborated and overcame numerous challenges to ensure that Minnesotans get the food, fuel and fiber they need to keep our economy moving and families fed,” said Tamara Nelsen, Executive Director of AgriGrowth. “Altogether, this study paints a complete and detailed picture of what agriculture means to our state.”

“We were thrilled to be a part of and support the completion of this important study,” said Thom Petersen, Minnesota’s Commissioner of Agriculture. “And while it confirms what we knew, that agriculture is a critically important to the state’s economy, it also shows the tremendous diversity of Minnesota agriculture—something that bodes well for the long-term health of our industry and state.”

DIS analysis also indicated that 99 percent of Minnesota farms are considered family farms, and that metro counties Hennepin, Ramsey and Dakota were the top three counties respectively with the greatest value-added contributions from agriculture, forestry, and related industries.

“Agriculture is significant to Minnesota as a whole and also seen in fields and businesses in every locality throughout the state,” said Lucas Sjostrom, Executive Director of Midwest Dairy. “We shouldn’t forget the benefits of having our food grown here helps connect eaters to the processes required to grow it, and respect for the people and jobs in the entire supply chain making it happen.”

“Agriculture plays such a vital role in Minnesota’s economy,” said Tom Slunecka, CEO for the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council. “While we in the industry are aware of the importance, this study really hits home just how impactful agriculture is in providing jobs and economic benefits to the state.”

“Minnesota producers and value-added agribusiness have driven food and ag innovations forward for decades, and it’s great to see this current compilation of economic contributions that the industry provides,” said Shannon Schlecht, Executive Director of the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute. “Value-added agriculture produces benefits in multiple manners, including new commodity utilization and sales, capital investment, and jobs across the state.”

The study includes data and breakdowns by county, industry and more. You can read the full 2020 Economic Contribution Study of Minnesota Agriculture and Forestry here.

For More Information, Contact:
Chelsea Thompson, ct@k2andcompany.com

###

GreenSeam event highlights agribusiness accomplishments

Special presentation held at Franklin Rogers Field recognized agribusiness accomplishments and the continuous agricultural work during the COVID-19 pandemic

Full story on KEYC here >>

Where’s My Beef?

As the calendar flips to June, American’s will increasingly light the charcoal or fire up gas grills as part of their meal preparation process. Grilling season is prime time for beef as people enjoy the shift to warmer weather. But, as is the case with many sectors of the economy, the coronavirus has thrown some cold water on the beef industry’s fire.

Beef packing plants around the country reduced their level of processing due to worker safety concerns with COVID-19. While all of those facilities are up and running, Minnesota Beef Council Executive Director Karin Schaefer says production is still well below normal levels.

“When coronavirus hit, we had challenges right off the bat from our packing plants, all the way back to our livestock markets,” Schaefer says. “Auction barns paused because there weren’t buyers and we saw that trickle down into the cow-calf sector where calves just weren’t getting moved into the next phase of production because there wasn’t any movement on the upper end.”

Beef packers are running at about 80 percent capacity, which is an improvement. But for many cattle farmers, serious damage has been done.

“Like other industries, it (coronavirus) was really hard on our market,” adds Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association President and Walnut Grove farmer Mike Landuyt. “We saw over 35 percent decline in our prices just because of this.”

Landuyt says he knows fellow farmers who have lost $300 to nearly $500 per cow.

 

Chain Reaction

Schaefer says Minnesota is the 10th leading cattle producing state in the country. Minnesota cattle farms are a mix of feed yards, which feed calves until they reach market size, and cow-calf operations that produce the calves those feeders need. With fewer cattle going to market, the demand for calves was reduced, creating an unwanted trickle-down effect.

“We’re seeing the holdup for cow-calf operators,” Landuyt explains. “They’ve not been able to move their cattle. If we don’t have pen space in the feed yard, there’s no place for their cattle to go. They made their feed last summer based on how long they expected to have their cattle, now farmers are starting to run out of feed, and they have to come up with alternative ways to feed them.”

Unlike the pork industry which has seen some farmers forced to euthanize animals because of processing plant shutdowns, that unthinkable step has not been taken in the cattle industry. Landuyt says “so far everybody has been able to find a spot to tuck them and not have to do anything too drastic.”

The nation’s food supply chain is a sophisticated process that links growers, processors, distributors and retailers in a delicate dance to keep product moving as efficiently as possible. Hiccups anywhere in the path affects the other portions of the supply chain.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize just how intricate our supply system is, just how timed out everything is and how much thought goes into what happens each day,” Landuyt contends. “Which hogs, turkeys, chickens, cattle go where is all plotted out, sometimes years in advance, especially on the cattle side. The cattle that are being bred this year won’t calve until next year and won’t hit the market until the year after that. Decisions being made now are several-year decisions, so you don’t just change that overnight.”

While Minnesota has substantial cattle production, the state has limited packing capacity. Most of the state’s cattle are processed in other states.

“That’s one of the obstacles we have. We don’t have a lot of control over the packing capacity. What’s governed by states and governors in other states we have no control over that, but it does impact us,” Schaefer says. “This showcases the dynamics of our food supply and that its nationwide. What happens in one plant, even if Minnesota farmers aren’t selling to that plant, will affect all the other packers and it will affect cattle prices, too.”

Schaefer and Landuyt agree that it’s important for the beef industry to have plants up and running at full capacity while maintaining a safe work environment for employees. Schaefer says packing plants are prioritizing employee COVID-19 testing “so I think that’s going to be really helpful to make sure that those who have been cleared to go back to work feel safe.”

 

On the Shelf

Consumers have likely noticed changes in beef availability at the retail level. Some spot shortages have occurred, and Schaefer says not every beef cut has been available every day. While prices for cattle producers have gone down, prices consumers pay have gone up because of the value of primal meat cuts coming from the processors. Overall, Schaefer stresses, there is not a shortage of beef.

“Beef is coming to those grocery stores on a weekly basis, and on top of that, we know that our production capacity is increasing every day, so hopefully we’ll be digging ourselves out of this hiccup in production that we’ve had,” Schaefer explains. “Finding ways to get back to a stable production level while keeping employees safe is going to be the number one factor in moving everything down the line and making it function as close to normal as possible.”

“We have the cattle out here in the country to get to the plant,” Landuyt says, “but we need those important people in the middle to keep everything rolling.”

Ethanol Industry Eyes Rebound

Times have been tough for the nation’s ethanol producers and the COVID-19 outbreak has only made matters worse. But as states begin to reopen businesses and people emerge for shelter in place orders, some in the industry find reason for optimism.

“The nation’s ethanol industry has been bleeding pretty hard,” says Randall Doyal, CEO of Al-Corn Clean Fuel in Claremont and former chair of the Renewable Fuels Association board of directors. “The last couple of years have been tough, but the last few months things have been tough to the Nth degree. I’ve been in the industry for 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

A combination of factors has led to sharp reduction in ethanol demand and consumption. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has granted small refinery exemptions to dozens of oil refineries, relieving them of the obligation to blend ethanol with gasoline under the Renewable Fuel Standard. EPA granted exemptions to refineries that biofuel advocates say should never have been granted exemptions.

“Small refinery exemptions have been a destructive force for ethanol demand,” says Craig Willis, senior vice president for global markets for Growth Energy, the nation’s largest biofuels trade group. “The exemptions reduced the amount of ethanol they need to buy to meet their obligations under the renewable fuel standard. Four billion gallons have been exempted since 2016.”

Willis says U.S. ethanol production was just under 16 billion gallons in 2019.

“Economics have been ugly for a while with all the small refinery exemptions. Things turned absolutely brutal when Russia and Saudi Arabia went to war with each other over oil and just bashed the oil price,” Doyal adds. “Ethanol price fell like a rock. That started driving plants into negative margins. Then suddenly, because of COVID-19, everybody stopped driving. That lack of demand shows up very quickly.”

Major Impact

Minnesota has 18 ethanol plants with combined capacity of about 1.3 billion gallons year. Iowa boasts more than 40 plants and capacity of more than 4 billion gallons. Several plants in Minnesota have shut down or are running at reduced capacity because of the reduced ethanol demand. Guardian Energy in Janesville is shuttered at least through the end of May. Corn Plus in Winnebago closed in September. Others have trimmed their production.

Willis says small refinery exemptions and plummeting oil prices hurt ethanol production, but reduced demand due to coronavirus-related restrictions has been even more impactful.

“The biggest problem is nobody is driving,” Willis contends. “At its lowest point, gasoline consumption was reduced by 46 percent in the United States. Since ethanol is in 98 percent of gasoline, ethanol is going to follow. That’s where we’ve really been hurt.”

Willis says the United States is the largest gas consuming nation in the world, using about 35 percent of all gasoline.

“When the U.S. stops using gas, it’s going to be tough to hide,” Willis adds.

Loss of ethanol demand and reduced production means farmers have lost a key corn market.

Madelia farmer Harold Wolle is a member of the National Corn Growers board. He says what’s happening in the ethanol sector is directly impacting corn farmers. Corn prices hit their lowest marks in over three years.

“Numerous ethanol plants have closed, and a number have cut back to less than 50 percent of their normal production. We’re seeing that impact in estimates of increased corn carryover for next year,” Wolle says. “It’s tremendous the amount of devastation that has been caused.”

Doyal says the reduction in ethanol consumption has knocked corn demand down by 50 percent, and “that’s a big number.”

While some ethanol plants in Minnesota and Iowa have shut down or reduced their capacity, Doyal says Al-Corn has continued to run. They are also producing ethanol used in making hand sanitizer.

“Sanitizer isn’t a replacement, but it’s something,” Doyal says.

Look Ahead

Doyal says things are looking up for the ethanol industry as life in the U.S. gradually returns to normal. He says demand for ethanol in the Twin Cities, a big market for Al-Corn, is increasing. However, his plant is still operating below full capacity.

Even with increased ethanol demand, Doyal expects some of the nation’s shuttered ethanol plants will stay that way for good.   

“We are an industry that needed to get right-sized to demand. We were built beyond where demand was already,” Doyal explains.

Willis says gasoline consumption was down as much as 46 percent, and as gasoline demand goes, so does ethanol. If Americans start driving more again, ethanol demand should follow suit.

“Right now, we are seeing demand slowly start to come back up,” Willis says. “I fully expect that as demand increases, our producers will speed their plants back up or turn them back on as the market tells them to – but it may take time to get back to normal.”

Willis says the U.S. exports substantial amounts of ethanol around the world. Opportunities for increased exports to countries like China, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and Japan is reason for optimism. Ethanol was included in the list of agriculture products China agreed to buy in the Phase One trade deal with the United States.

Exports are vital for ethanol producers, but according to Willis, the first order of business that’s needed to get the nation’s ethanol industry back on track is to stabilize domestic markets.

“We have to have the U.S. market back driving close to normal. That’s my first ask,” Willis says. “Second, what would affect our producers the quickest would be for China to start buying.”

In addition to resumption of typical domestic driving habits and increased exports, resolving the small refinery exemption would give ethanol producers confidence that the RFS is going to work as it was intended, according to Willis.

Agriculture Presses on in Uncertain Times

Adapting to conditions outside of their control is nothing new for people involved in agriculture. Weather conditions, market uncertainty and government actions alter farm management decisions on a regular basis. Global pandemics, though, are uncharted territory.

“This is more disruptive than anything we could have possibly imagined,” says JoDee Haala, director of public affairs for Sleepy Eye-based Christensen Farms.

The onset of the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting disruptions have impacted nearly every U.S. citizen. Agriculture, deemed an essential industry, is not immune from those challenges. However, farmers and agribusinesses are committed to providing food for the nation and beyond, so they press on with spring field work and livestock care despite unprecedented challenges.

“If a time like this doesn’t prove to people that agriculture and feeding the world is our foundation and is extremely important, then I don’t know what would,” says Ashley Leivermann, chief human resources officer for Crystal Valley Cooperative. “I’m proud of the industry from the standpoint that it is resilient. Whatever the challenge is, we’ll adapt. We don’t have the option to not get the crop in the ground. We don’t have the option not to feed animals, because people and animals need to eat. It doesn’t matter there’s a COVID-19 outbreak going on or not, they need to eat.”

Minnesota’s livestock sector, an economic strength across southern Minnesota and northern Iowa because of prolific hog production, is facing drastic disruptions. Hog processing facilities in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota are shuttered because of COVID-19 outbreaks among plant workers. Markets for processed pork products like bacon are also in disarray because restaurants and food service venues are closed or offer takeout options only.

“So, not only is it a lack of a place to go with processed product, it’s also a lack of a place to go with live animals that are ready to enter the food supply chain,” Haala says. “The situation is unfathomable, especially when the need for safe, nutritious affordable food has never been greater.”

Some hog farmers are faced with the need to try to find willing processors to take their animals in an already taxed system. The other unthinkable option is to cull otherwise healthy animals because there’s no place to take them for processing and no place to keep them.

Livestock producers are well versed in animal health management and animal agriculture leaders put an emphasis on keeping cattle, hogs, turkeys or chickens healthy. While farm worker safety is also a priority, dealing with a human disease that is disrupting the food chain is new territory.

“We’ve had to deal with animal diseases in the past, but when you have a disease that potentially impairs your workforce, that’s a different kettle of fish that requires many different actions on the part of players in the industry to figure out how to continue to operate,” explains Christensen Farms Vice President Gary Koch. “We’re in uncharted waters here.”

 

Soldiering On

Despite stay at home orders and social distancing guidelines, agriculture activities press on in the adjusted reality. Farmers are diligently planting crops and livestock operators remain committed to feeding and caring for their animals. The coronavirus may be a new challenge but dealing with adversity is part of the fabric of farming.

“The reality is that people need to eat, and there is no place in the world that has the geographic characteristics that southern Minnesota and the Midwest has,” Haala says. “There is absolutely no place better in the world to be growing food, both the crops that go on to feed people but also feed animals to supply the protein. What makes people get up and do that every single day? I think it’s just in their bones and it’s the fabric of who they are.”

Farmers are adapting to new safety practices as are employers and employees in all aspects of agribusiness. From factory workers and livestock managers to sales representatives and fertilizer applicators, businesses are striving to ensure worker safety. Healthy workers are stepping up to do their jobs to produce healthy food.

“My opinion is that folks recognize what they do is important,” Koch contends. “This is an essential industry and we have the noble purpose of feeding the world. Quite frankly, I think that is a motivating factor for people and it causes them to want to continue to come to work. You’ve got a bunch of committed people in this essential industry who are trying to figure out how to keep the wheels on the car, and keep producing food so that the American people can have the assurance that that food will still be there every day. That’s the battle going on right now.”

 

Regional Strength

GreenSeam Director Sam Ziegler isn’t surprised farmers and agribusinesses are stepping up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Southern Minnesota and northern Iowa were built on the strength of the region’s agriculture economy and continue to flourish because of agriculture’s contributions.

“Agriculture has always been a humble industry,” Ziegler says. “Just because we are now labeled as essential does not change the passion people in this industry have. There is a passion to produce cleaner energy such as ethanol. There is a passion to raise animals to nourish families near and far. There is a passion to care for the soil and work with whatever Mother Nature throws at us. There is a passion for finding solutions to grow more nourish food. Right now, more than ever there is a passion to not let fellow Americans down by keeping food on your table.

Ziegler says that while the dark clouds are hanging over agriculture now with historically low prices and a supply chain traffic jam, agriculture remains strong. Farmers are in the process of planting another crop, confident in the fact they’ll harvest a crop this fall.

“These times have not stopped this hope or motivation to plant new seeds,” Ziegler contends. “This industry is the foundation of our economy for as long as Minnesota and Iowa have been states. Looking into the future, it will remain to be the foundation of our economy. In times like this, agriculture remains a bright star and I am proud to have my career in agriculture.”

Far beyond economic reward, many in agriculture are willing to step up in the face to challenges because of their commitment to providing for others.

“I think people from coast to coast are counting on the ability of our region to continue to make food to maintain the country and keep putting food on the table during this time of crisis,” Koch says.

“Agriculture is a pretty resilient industry,” Leivermann says. “Agriculture is regularly being faced with challenges that we need to figure out how to adapt and overcome. Overall, I think the agriculture industry is just so resilient because we’re constantly being faced with something that we can’t control.”

Beyond supplying food for consumers, Haala says farmers and agribusinesses are contributing much more. Christensen Farms has donated to 17 food banks across the Midwest and is the lead partner in the Brown County United Way Project Lunchbox, which provides weekend meals to kids. A group of Christensen employees has also sewn and donated hundreds of masks.

“People want to help people,” Haala says. “You can see that evidence all over the place.”

Region’s Hog Industry Rattled by Coronavirus

It’s no secret that hogs are an important economic driver in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

Iowa is the number one pork producing state in the U.S. Nearly one-third of the nation’s hogs are raised in Iowa, on one of the state’s more than 6,200 pig farms. Iowa producers marketed almost 48 million hogs in 2018.

Minnesota, meanwhile, ranks 2nd in the value and number of market pigs raised. The state’s hog farmers marketed 16.6 million pigs in 2018.  Over $6 billion in economic activity is generated each year thanks to Minnesota pork production. The hog industry also creates and supports an additional 44,000 affiliated jobs in construction, trucking, feed milling, accounting, food processing and more. Hog production creates demand for millions of bushels of corn and soybeans needed to feed those animals.

Positive COVID-19 cases have forced the temporary closure of several Midwestern meat packing plants. The repercussions are being felt throughout agriculture.

“One thing that’s immediately upon us is how to maintain stream of live production to the processor,” says Gary Koch, vice chair of Christensen Farms of Sleepy Eye. “To the extent that processors close or reduce capacity, the ability to deliver hogs is impaired. If the ability to deliver hogs is disrupted, then producers have to figure out what they’re going to do with those animals on an intermediate term basis.”

Hog production and meat processing are closely aligned so there is a nearly continuous flow of animals from the farm to the packer, then to the consumer. Disruptions at the processor creates a logjam along the supply chain.

“At some point there’s no longer room for everything. So you have to look about for all kinds of alternatives, with respect to maintaining stocking densities with buildings that are acceptable for the workforces and the animals, that may lead to the need to cull herds in order to keep the facilities from being overcrowded,” Koch explains.

Christensen Farms has about 1,000 employees and 1,500 contracted growers. Plant closures are being felt all along the supply chain, but the priority remains with the people involved.

“On the front end of this, we were very focused on the impact to the people and our farms,” says JoDee Haala, director of public affairs for Christensen Farms. “We’re making sure that people are protected and that they aren’t having to choose between having a paycheck and having to stay home to care for a family member or a child, or feeling like they need to continue to come to work if they are feeling ill. Making sure that the employees are taken care of and feeling supported through this, is priority number one.”

In addition to plant shutdowns, the temporary closure of restaurants and food service venues has also had a negative impact on the hog industry. Haala says a large portion of the nation’s bacon supply is sold to food service. Bacon also props up the entire hog carcass value.

“When it comes to the value the producers are being paid, that has eroded substantially because there is limited demand for bacon,” Haala says. “It’s all basic economics–supply and demand. Right now, we’ve seen value fall out for producers in a very substantial way that’s impacting their income.”

Plant closures are also forcing some farmers to euthanize otherwise healthy hogs because there is no room for processing.  Many farmers have changed how they feed the pigs to slow their growth, but that only works for a short period of time.  When the pigs get too large, the processing facilities physically can’t harvest them.  It’s an unthinkable situation for farmers whose focus is on caring for animals to ensure a safe, healthy food supply.

There is also concern that loss of processing plant capacity, even temporarily, will affect the nation’s food supply. Minnesota’s pork industry leaders are working to navigate these challenging times.

“What the struggle is about right now,” Koch says, “is how to manage and enable the supply chain that provides food to people to survive this crisis and come out on the other end.”

Coworking Spaces in Southern Minnesota Join Forces in Passport Program

Members will be able to work in six towns across the state using the plan.

AUSTIN, MN (February 11, 2020) – Six coworking spaces across Southern Minnesota announced the “Greater Minnesota Coworking Passport” today. The program will allow members who join to work at any of the coworking spaces that are part of the program. The program came about in a conversation between Mogwai Collaborative in Mankato and Collider Foundation in Rochester, and was organized by Austin Community Growth Ventures.

“We’ve been wanting to create a collaborative program like this in our region for a while now, and are thrilled to finally announce it!” said Stephanie Braun of Mogwai Collaborative. “I think it’s an important gesture that we coworking directors come together to collaborate like this – to not only offer our entrepreneurs productive and professional working environments in a number of locations, but to also inspire more collaboration between the entrepreneurs themselves, and help jumpstart our region’s innovations in the process.”

Coworking spaces that are already participating in the program include Mogwai Collaborative in Mankato, Launch Coworking Space in Austin, Collider Coworking in Rochester, Pi-Co.Works in Pine Island, Red Wing Ignite in Red Wing, and The Garage Cowork Space in Winona, with more expected to join soon.

“In talking with our members, it really drove home that a large percentage of the workforce in Minnesota isn’t stationary in a single town – they work all across the state,” said Jamie Sundsbak of Collider Foundation, which operates Collider Coworking. 

“Empowering the entrepreneurs in our communities to use all the assets available in Minnesota to make their endeavors easier is why we’re here,” said Sean Williams of Austin Community Growth Ventures, which operates the Launch Coworking Space in Austin. “Joining forces was a no-brainer.”

The program has two tiers of membership. Members can purchase a Punch Card Passport for $99 online or at one of the participating coworking spaces, and can redeem it for up to five visits at any of the member spaces. Additionally, a Monthly Passport for $250 gives unlimited access to participating coworking spaces during their posted “drop-in” hours. The passports can be redeemed all at a single location, or at multiple locations across the state – even in a single day.

“Southern Minnesota is great at collaborating across community boundaries,” said Adam Gettings of Red Wing Ignite. “This passport program is another perfect example of that.”

“We want to eventually create a physical passport book for members to use,” added Sundsbak, “with a prize of some kind for visiting all the participating coworking spaces.”

For more information, and to purchase a passport, visit LaunchAustinMN.com/Passport.

ABOUT MOGWAI COLLABORATIVE: 

Mogwai Collaborative opened July 2nd, 2018 as local business in Mankato, MN. Their mission statement is: “We aim to provide an innovative, thriving and collaborative office space environment to meet the needs of the modern entrepreneur in our region.” Mogwai offers both coworking and private office space. It is located inside the Hubbard Building, which runs on rooftop solar panels and features live plant walls inside, and was 2019’s recipient of the City Center Partnership Sustainability Award.

ABOUT ACGV:

Austin Community Growth Ventures (ACGV) was established in 2015 by the Development Corporation of Austin’s Austin Community Charitable Fund (ACCF) to promote, encourage, and aid in the creation of an innovative ecosystem that supports education, creates quality jobs, and increases the new application of biotechnology, agricultural technology, and food science. ACGV is a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit organization, and operates the Launch Coworking Space and Austin Area Angels programs in Austin, MN.

###

PRESS CONTACT:

Sean Williams

Ecosystem Builder

Austin Community Growth Ventures

Development Corporation of Austin

sewilliams@austindca.org

(507) 509-9039 office

(310) 936-3210 cell

Partnership Provides Hands-On Experience for Students

Jerry Johnson, founder and CEO of Aglytix, an agriculture and food technology company, presented Vincent Winstead, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Technology at Minnesota State University, Mankato, with five fixed-wing drones for student training and projects. A number of years ago, Johnson provided Winstead three drones, which they are still using today and they are redesigning them with updated camera and battery technology with an open sourced system.

“They have made such great use of the drones by providing hands-on teaching of students about drone technologies including GPS, sensors, autopilots and batteries,” Johnson said.

GreenSeam and Minnesota State University, Mankato have been partnering to build the capacity of the University surrounding agriculture and food. This is a great example of how the ag industry is responding to the new program offerings the University is constructing.

“Drones will be a key technology for agriculture. Basically a drone is a flying sensor that can capture very detailed data, all across a field, whenever you want to capture it,” said Johnson.

“We hope that our partnership with Aglytix remains strong in the future and that we can deliver expertise and drone resources to other projects as well in agriculture and other aerial imaging applications,” Winstead said.

Sam Ziegler, Director of GreenSeam, applauds Aglytix for donating these drones and Professor Winstead for stepping up to the challenge of providing hands-on experiences for students with ag technology.