Another very successful year of Farmfest Forums has come and gone. After Farmfest is over, it is interesting to look back and see what nuggetsare the take-home messages from the various forums. These are my thoughts after the 2008 Farmfest forums:

  • The U.S. Senate candidate’s forum on agriculture and rural issues highlighted day one of Farmfest, with an estimated 1,200 people in attendance – one of the largest attended Farmfest forums ever. This forum was the first time that U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman (R), and his main challenger, Al Franken (D), were together in a forum or debate. They were joined by two Independent party candidates: former U.S. Sen. Dean Barkley and Steve Williams. This forum garnered a considerable amount of statewide media coverage, and drew a wide-range of analysis from those covering Minnesota politics. Energy issues in the U.S. and how to best address them was the key theme. There was also discussion of the recently passed farm bill, world trade agreements and U.S. immigration policy.
  • The Congressional candidates forum on agriculture and rural issues was also held on the first day of Farmfest, and was also very well attended. Incumbent Congressmen Collin Peterson and Tim Walz provided numerous highlights of the new farm bill passed earlier this year. Congressman Peterson chaired the U.S. House Ag Committee that was key in writing the new farm bill, and Congressman Walz was a member of that Committee. Congressional candidates Brian Davis and Dick Day from the First District, Steve Sarvi from the Second District, Elwyn Tinklenberg from the Sixth District and Glen Menze from the Seventh District, all applauded many of the provisions in the new farm bill, but also pointed out some things that could be improved in the legislation. The low profitability in the livestock industry and rapidly rising input costs for crop producers were also discussed. Future U.S. energy policy also garnered considerable discussion.
  • Another highlight of day one at Farmfest was a keynote address by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. This again resulted in considerable media coverage, given the Governor’s national prominence relative to the 2008 presidential election. The Governor re-enforced the prominent role that Minnesota is playing nationally related to the development of alternative energy sources. He also emphasized the importance of a strong agriculture industry to future economic growth in the state.
  • The morning forum on day two of Farmfest was a unique opportunity to hear the presidents of the two major farm organizations in the U.S. on the same forum panel. Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau president and a family farm operator from Texas, and Tom Buis, National Farmers Union president and a family farmer from Indiana, were joined by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar to discuss key ag policy issues. The impact of rising fuel prices on U.S. citizens and on the agriculture industry, the need for a comprehensive U.S. energy policy and renewable energy were discussed extensively. The recently passed new farm bill, implementation of new farm programs, the future of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and world trade agreements were among other issues that were discussed.
  • The other feature forum on day two featured a lively discussion on the topic of Food And Fuel: Where Is The Balance For Renewable Energy?”Gene Hugoson, Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture, gave a very good overview of the topic, highlighting the fact that over 80% of retail food cost is derived from non-farm costs such as packaging, transportation, etc. Two economists on the panel, Brian Buhr from the University of Minnesota and Jim Sartwelle, American Farm Bureau, did a good job of giving a global perspective of world demand for U.S. grains and meat and the rapid rise in commodity prices earlier this year. Randy Spronk, a pork producer from Edgerton, MN, and a National Pork Producers Assn. board member, focused on the plight of the livestock producer relative to the rapid increase in feed costs and the concern regarding adequate grain supplies for livestock feed in the future. Steve Kramer, a corn and soybean producer from Hector, MN, and government relations chair for the Minnesota Corn Growers Assn., pointed out the successes of the ethanol industry in Minnesota and the U.S. and highlighted challenges being faced by that industry. Newell Searle, vice president of Second Harvest Heartland, gave an overview the financial difficulty being faced by low-income citizens in Minnesota and the U.S. due to the rapid rise in both fuel and food costs.
  • The feature forum on the third day of Farmfest focused on future strategies and opportunities for economic development in rural Minnesota. Mark Drabenstott, director of the RUPRI Policy Center at the University of Missouri, gave a very good overview of the current economic status of southern and western Minnesota. He also highlighted the importance of thinking regionally for future economic development, and offered some possibilities for future economic opportunities. Marc Knisely, CEO of United FCS, and John Monson, vice president of AgStar, discussed a rural development partnership initiative that their two organizations are helping initiate in partnership with local banks and other private businesses, along with various public economic development organizations already in existence and local government leaders, to pool resources to enhance economic development across southern and western Minnesota. Bob Byrnes, mayor of Marshall, MN, and U of M Regional Extension director, gave his thoughts on past successes and future opportunities for rural economic development.
  • Finally, approximately 65 county Farm Families of the Year from throughout Minnesota were recognized on the last day of Farmfest. It is always interesting to hear the diverse and interesting backgrounds of these farm families and their farming businesses, and to realize the tremendous amount of agricultural and community leadership that exists throughout the state. Congratulations to all the farm families recognized at Farmfest.

All in all, 2008 provided a very memorable, interesting and successful line-up of Farmfest forums, with concerns over fuel prices and future U.S. energy policy being the No. 1 issue; however, there were more than a few other take-home nuggets from this year’s forums.

Editor’s note: Kent Thiesse is a former University of Minnesota Extension educator and now is Vice President of MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, MN. You can contact him at 507-726-2137 or via e-mail at kent.thiesse@minnstarbank.com.