Mankato’s annual Rural Forum certainly wasn’t showing its age on Nov. 30 as a record crowd gathered at the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center.

“We had over 300 people register this year,” said GreenSeam President Sam Ziegler. “We came close to having to turn people away.”

This is the 40th year for the Rural Forum. Started by the Minnesota Ag Women’s Association and University of Minnesota Extension, the event is now sponsored by GreenSeam.

The Rural Forum is an opportunity for public leaders to connect with various members of the agriculture community. Representatives of area ag industry, education, manufacturing and research sat down for dinner and discussion.

GreenSeam Board Chair Gary Koch welcomed attendees, thanking them for hard work and resourcefulness. “In times of struggle and times of stress there are also opportunities,” Koch reminded the audience.

Minnesota FFA President Katie Ketchum took the podium to share her FFA experiences and the importance of ag education. “There continues to be a disconnection from agriculture,” she warned. “But agriculture is not just farmers. Agriculture is everywhere.”

One of the features of the Rural Forum is participation from students from a number of learning institutions in the area. Ziegler said 75 students were placed at various tables to tell their stories and ask questions.

Keynote speaker was Bob Reiter, head of the Research and Development Crop Science Division of Bayer. Reiter said agriculture today is faced with producing more with less in a changing climate. He cited examples of developing rice hybrids to grow on dry land; short-statured corn that is more resistant to wind and allows for higher plant populations; and developing pennycress as a cover crop to grow between corn and soybean rotations.

Reiter said advancements in ag research are hampered in two areas. He said $200 billion was spent on pharmaceutical research last year while only $10 billion was spent on agriculture research. He added the general public needs a better understanding of how we produce food.

“There is a public calling for a reduction of crop protection products,” Reiter said. “There needs to be more acceptance to these practices. Social media makes this even more challenging. People without scientific background make statements that aren’t true.”

New to the Rural Forum this year was an energy panel made up of Brian Werner, executive director of Minnesota Bio-Fuels, and Pam Gorman Prochaska, general manager of Xcel Energy’s nuclear fleet operations.

“Ethanol is the story of ag innovation,” Werner said. “We are working diligently toward net-zero ethanol by making plants more efficient, employing climate-smart agriculture, and improving carbon capture and sequestration.”

Gorman Prochaska spoke of Minnesota’s nuclear power plants in Monticello and Prairie Island. She said Xcel is working to eliminate coal-based energy production in the next 20 years. She added wind and solar energy are an important piece in Minnesota’s energy future, but nuclear power provides a reliable source of energy when weather conditions are not favorable.

The evening concluded with a state legislative panel made up of Rep. Samantha Vang, DFL-Brooklyn Park; Rep. Bjorn Olson, R-Fairmont;, and Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne.

While Vang touted the 2023 legislative session as “most satisfying,” both Olson and Weber railed about taxes and spending. “Less than 1% of our spending is on agriculture,” Olson said. “I think that’s a problem.”

Weber said the legislature’s ag homestead exemption was “a tremendous help to family farms.” He did have issues with new education programs: “These pilot programs will guarantee tax levies for local school districts. That’s just higher taxes in a different form.”

Olson and Weber, whose districts border neighboring states, pointed out the disparity between taxes in Iowa and South Dakota in comparison to Minnesota. “I wish I could say you get what you pay for, but that isn’t the case,” Olson said.

Weber said the tax differential entices businesses to cross the border to set up shop, but farmers don’t have that luxury. “You can’t just move your farm,” he reasoned. “We keep beating the drum, but no one is paying attention.”

None of the three politicians were sure if another bonding bill was in the future for the 2024 session. Said Olson: “Minnesotans are tired of spending money.” Weber was more definite: “There will not be one in light of the bonding bill this year. But we’ll have to see what the economy looks like next year.”

Plans are already underway for the 2024 Rural Forum.

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