When you work in agriculture, it is easy to get pigeon holed into what you know or what you do on a daily basis. We are primarily cash crop farmers with a few livestock and honeybees. I grew up with various livestock on a feedlot scale, but the technology, techniques, housing, and practices have changed tremendously since I was younger, or what is on our farm since we are small-scale.
It is one of the reasons I jump on any chance to learn more about agriculture in Minnesota and what my fellow farmers are doing. I was recently invited to spend the day in Martin County, about an hour from the Mankato area, learning about agriculture and its impact on the county. It was followed by a dinner called From the Ground Up – hosted by Project 1590. I am going to try to highlight a few of my takeaways (even as a person working in the industry) that I learned.
- Devenish Nutrition – I’m going to be honest, I didn’t even know this company existed until visiting their US Headquarters in Fairmont as part of this tour. They call themselves an agritechnology company that provides nutritional solutions to livestock – their business is generally 40% poultry 35% swine, 20% ruminant, and various livestock complete the rest. They are headquartered and founded in Ireland, and a connection with the Fairmont vet clinic brought them over to the Fairmont area. They have grown from 23 employees to 400, and do business in over 30 countries! They did say it can be a challenge to attract new talent to the community, but it was refreshing to see many of the employees were local to the area and have settled their with their families. Although I could probably go on and on about this company – I was fascinated – the things that struck me the most was their commitment to research. They have their own research barns, as well as barns contracted with farmers, to ensure their findings are real-world applicable. They are also doing research in if feeding animals superior feed, meaning you get a superior chicken breast or pork chop at the store, if and how that impacts human health. Pretty cool!
- Hen-Way Manufacturing – A farmer with a problem who created his own solution and the businesses exploded from there. That is the easiest way to describe this family built business. He was a hog farmer himself who couldn’t find the equipment he needed for the new barn styles, so he started building it himself, and pretty soon others started noticing, and ordering! This company also invested in their own solar panels to reduce their electric bill by 2/3 of what it was. But I think what I most enjoyed about this stop was the way the owner Lonny, talked about his family. He didn’t start off about the company or the products, but rather explained how they made it all work for their kids and grandkids to live nearby, work with them, and farm with them. He and his wife will be married 50 years this year. He was a man who made you want to do business with him.
- Elm Creek Agronomy – Elm Creek Agronomy is a Pioneer seed dealership and chemical sales company owned by two friends. It was neat to see how an idea blossomed into a large business who now does soybean seed treatment for an entire region of dealers, including competitors! Here we were treated to lunch complete with high oleic soybean oil potato chips – made from soybeans that are being grown for the first time in Martin County to produce high oleic oil. Pioneer sells the Plenish brand seed that produces a more nutritious, longer lasting, and safer cooking oil!
- CHS – We were able to tour the CHS facility by bus with one of their employees. During harvest, they have over 1,500 trucks delivering soybeans per day – so many that they have to use the nearby fairgrounds for overflow! They ship out 50% of their meal by truck and another 50% by rail. Over 10 counties supply them with soybeans, so farmers from all over the region are trucking into this facility. For every bushel of soybean that comes into the plant, they can produce 42 pounds of soybean meal and hulls AND 1 1/2 gallons of soybean oil!
- Easy Automation – This company just floored me with where they started and where they are continuing to go. They haven’t been afraid of innovation, expansion and investment to get where they are going! Their company automates the facilities that make livestock feed. They deal in three areas: software, controls, and equipment. Their system allows traceability so they can track every single ingredient in case of a recall, and their systems are extremely accurate. They are currently working to innovate the water purification systems as well as decrease the overall cost of biofuel production with their new businesses. What I found most interesting what their committment to employees and communication in their business. Each employee had posted outside of their office space, the best ways to communicate with them and how they handle situations so you would know how to best interact. They also recently opened up a Mankato office in order to allow those that commute the option to work remotely a few days each week too.
- Windmill Farm – I have always been fascinated by wind power. Mark and I have frequently talked about putting up a small wind turbine with a magnetic motor just to power our future honey house. The windmill farm we toured was huge! It was all because some area farmers got together and decided to invest in this new power generation system. There were different ways and options for area farmers to get involved by leasing land, buying into a turban or investing in the LLC they formed. These wind turbines spin at 188 mph when they are at pull production and have a life expectancy between 20-25 years. What I found interesting was in order to do maintenance on them, they have basically an ultrasound machine that scans the blade with ultrasonic photos to determine any issues! Neat how a system used for medicine crosses over into energy production.
- Hog Barns – Our last stop on our day full of tours was a hog barn owned by a local 19-year-old. Yes, you read that right. 19 years old. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do in life (some days I still am) and this young man in college, had built his own barn and was now leasing it out to an area hog operation. They owned the hogs, he owned the building. His family said it was one way for him to work towards coming home to the farm. The electronics that control feed, water intake, heating and ventilation systems and just about everything else, are all available to check, change, and automate from smartphones and tablets. This allows this young man to attend college and be able to check on how much water the hogs are drinking all at the same time! It was quite impressive!
Working in a bigger city, I often hear how disconnected consumers are from the farm or rural Minnesota. We need to understand how rural Minnesota is an economic driver for our large cities. Martin County, although rural, is an economic hub full of entrepreneurial spirit that is making an impact at a local, state, national and international level! From opening a second office in Mankato to giving us the pork that is on our BBQ all summer long, we are impacted every single day by the farms and agriculture communities that make up Minnesota.
We ended the night at a dinner event called From the Ground Up, hosted by Project 1590. Project 1590’s mission is to enhance the vitality, livability and health within Martin County. The economic impact and driving force of agriculture within Martin County is very strong, something Project 1590 recognizes and From the Ground Up serves as a fundraising event each year that connects consumers with farmers and their food.
The food was amazing, as were the people. One of the farmers I met, I actually had interviewed her sister at my previous job for a story so it was fun to make that connection and learn a little more about their operation through dinner time. It was also fun to learn why people stayed in the community after moving there for a job. At the end of the night, I was wishing I was moving to the Fairmont area after hearing how amazing it was to raise a family there.
It was a beautiful evening full of great food and great conversation. I ended my night by fueling up at a local gas station before making the trek back home, only to be met by faces of cattle starting back at me on the other side of the pumps. It truly was where the county meets the city, and a slice of a thriving rural area that Minnesota shouldn’t take for granted.
At the end of the day, we should all learn a little more about what makes the areas of this state tick and how they are all interrelated. If we start to understand the full circle a bit more, and the impact the agriculture sector has on everything from electronics to the trucking industry, maybe the conversations we have will continue to be about collaboration and moving our communities forward to the future.
Thank you to Martin County, the Project 1590 crew, and all the volunteers for a wonderful day and an eye-opening experience for farm kid/farmer/ag employee who continues to learn all she can about this great industry!