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Michael Swanson, senior vice president and ag economist and consultant with Wells Fargo and Co., believes there will be a tremendous shift in agriculture over the coming years as younger workers migrate to metro areas. Swanson joined Brian Buhr, a professor and interim dean of the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota, in a panel discussion in Willmar that touched on everything from corn prices to biofuels to exports. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

Ag experts look to technology, innovation as keys to ag’s future

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Irrigation isn’t something most crop farmers in water-rich southern Minnesota tend to worry about. But climate change is altering the picture and putting new, unforeseen pressure on the state’s agricultural producers, say two state experts on the economy and agriculture.In the future, water management could become “the next major differentiator” for crop producers, said Michael Swanson, senior vice president and ag economist and consultant with Wells Fargo and Co.

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Swanson and Brian Buhr, a professor and interim dean of the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota, spoke in a panel discussion last week at the third annual animal science conference hosted by the MinnWest Technology Campus.

Agriculture may be entering a new era filled with outside pressures that will challenge the farmer’s ability to manage resources globally as well as locally, Buhr said. “Ultimately we’re all competing in a sense for all those resources.”

In a wide-ranging conversation that touched on everything from corn prices to biofuels to exports, Buhr and Swanson listed some of the emerging issues that confront Minnesota agriculture: Climate change. Increased interest by consumers in where their food comes from and how it’s produced. Pressure from animal welfare groups over the treatment of livestock. A shrinking labor force.

Solutions to many of these challenges may lie in technology, said the experts.

Take, for example, dairy operations. As rural populations shrink and young people migrate to cities, will there be enough workers left to get up at 3 a.m. and milk the cows each day? “The answer is no,” Swanson said.

The development of automated robotic milking systems can help fill the workforce gap, he said.

Climate change may force Minnesota’s crop farmers to get innovative and efficient about how they manage water, Swanson and Buhr said.

The real question, said Buhr, is whether agriculture is investing enough in new technology. Much of the ag industry’s existing technology is either becoming obsolete or being regulated out of the market, and private investments aren’t keeping up, he said.

There is “a huge need” to innovate so that Minnesota farmers can adapt to a changing environment and produce more efficiently, Buhr said. “How do we adjust to some of these realities? ... You can wish it goes away. They’re not going to go away.”

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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