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Hugoson is taking bullish approach to ag's potential, future growth

MONTEVIDEO -- Fifteen years and three governors into his role as commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Gene Hugoson is more bullish than ever on the future of agriculture.

He's also wary, as he expressed concerns about the unintended consequences of regulatory efforts by people far removed from agriculture, and how the state's budget crisis could affect his department.

Agriculture accounts for 20 percent of the jobs in Minnesota, Hugoson told a small gathering of mainly reporters Thursday at a listening session he hosted in Montevideo. In 2008, cash receipts to Minnesota farmers for crops totaled $16 billion. When all of the jobs and value-added earnings associated with those products are calculated, the economic impact to the state is $75 billion, he said.

Agriculture's importance to the economy will only grow, he said. Food production in the world needs to increase by 80 percent between now and 2050 to meet the demands of a growing world population, 95 percent of which is outside the U.S.

Hugoson sees growing markets for livestock and feed grains, biomass for renewable energy, and especially, foods for export.

Ironically, he worries that efforts within the department aimed at promoting overseas sales could suffer as the state deals with the projected $6 billion budget deficit for the next two fiscal years.

The department's roughly $80 million annual budget is nearly evenly split between regulatory and promotional activities. Fees generated by inspections and other duties provide revenues for regulatory work, but promotional efforts are largely funded through the general fund.

The importance of regulatory work -- both for consumer safety and maintaining the credibility and integrity of Minnesota's agricultural products -- makes him protective of those responsibilities, the commissioner said. "I haven't felt comfortable in making cuts in that area."

Hugoson also expressed "some nervousness" about what he described as the "unintended consequences" of some regulatory initiatives. He cited the federal Environmental Protection Agency's current discussion about dust emission restrictions as one example. As now proposed, a combine working a dry field might not meet standards, he said.

In an open discussion, he also said he believes the steady rise in farmland values and rental rates may represent a bubble more so than market realities. He expressed concerns about how the high land values make it difficult for young people to start farming.

Yet his advice to young people is simple: "Don't sell agriculture short." Hugoson said he's confident growing demand for agriculture's products will mean more opportunities than ever, whether it's on the farm or in the many processing and value-added industries that are part of the agricultural economy.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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