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Committee chair hears about Willmar-area ag-related businesses

Rep. Jean Wagenius, chairwoman of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee, speaks Thursday with Bruce Kleven, an agricultural lobbyist. The House committee toured several ag businesses in the area and heard presentations from others during a luncheon at the MinnWest Technology Campus. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

WILLMAR — A handful of area agricultural businesses got a chance to showcase their industries Thursday to the chairwoman of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee.

Rep. Jean Wagenius was in Kandiyohi County to tour several local facilities and hear presentations from regional food-producing businesses.

While the tour gave the business owners an opportunity to discuss issues about taxes and a potential hike in the minimum wage, Wagenius said she mostly heard Thursday about the positive growth of the businesses she toured, including Jennie-O Turkey Store and Willmar Poultry in Willmar and the Southwest Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville.

“I’ve heard about the good things they’re doing, and they want to advertise the good things they’re doing,” said Wagenius, following a luncheon at Willmar’s MinnWest Technology Campus, where she heard company overviews from Litchfield-based Sparboe Farms that produces eggs, the GNP Company that owns Gold’n Plump in Cold Spring, and from Prinsco, which produces agricultural drainage systems in Prinsburg.

Wagenius said she was impressed with the companies’ awareness of environmental issues associated with their businesses.

“I think people are aware of the need to conserve energy and are working on it; and the need to conserve water, and they’re working on it,” she said. “Water is a particular issue for Kandiyohi County, so I’m glad to see that.”

When it comes to legislative concerns, Wagenius said they would all like their tax rates reduced, but she said that’s not an issue her committee will be tackling.

Beth Sparboe Schnell, owner of Sparboe Farms, said although her family-owned company has many longtime employees with 30-plus years on the job, the company faces a daily challenge of finding and keeping unskilled workers.

Despite full-time benefits and wages that she said are well above the minimum wage, Schnell said they struggle with the lack of a reliable unskilled workforce and have formed a task force to address the issue.

At the same time, she said they have to be careful not to hire an animal rights activist who applies for a job “under false pretenses.”

In 2011 an individual working for an animal rights group filmed alleged mistreatment of animals at a Sparboe farm that resulted in some negative attention for the company. Sparboe Farms will be celebrating its 60th anniversary next year and is in the process of expanding its facilities with new, more efficient barns.

Mike Helgeson, from GNP Company, told Wagenius and the group of other ag business leaders that his company pays an average of $14 an hour. He said increasing the minimum wage in Minnesota — along with Minnesota’s estate tax and business-to-business tax — would put additional stress on his family-owned company, which competes with other chicken processing companies in low-wage and low-tax southern states.

Helgeson also said consumers should decide if they want to purchase chicken meat raised with or without antibiotics. He said that decision shouldn’t be dictated by legislation, adding that mandating antibiotic-free chickens would increase production costs and make it even more difficult for his company to compete.

Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, and Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, accompanied Wagenius on the day-long tour of farms and ag businesses.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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