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New EDC ag specialist believes in planting seeds

Leroy Petersen is the newly hired agriculture and renewable energy specialist for the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR — Kandiyohi County and Afghanistan are worlds apart but when it comes to farming, Leroy Petersen sees the common ground they share.

It hit home one day when he was visiting with an Afghan farmer and noticed that the weeds in the fields looked just like the weeds that grew on his own farm back in Minnesota.

“We discovered we had the same weeds in our farms half a world apart,” he said.

Petersen recently joined the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission as its agriculture and renewable energy specialist. He brings years of practical experience as a farmer near Pennock, but he also has a global perspective acquired during recent stints as an ag consultant in Afghanistan.

One of the key lessons he learned in Afghanistan is that in order for farmers to benefit from their labor, they need an environment and an infrastructure that support them, Petersen said.

“We know if we plant on a sidewalk, it doesn’t work,” he said. “The environment has to be proper.”

Fostering a supportive environment for farmers and the local ag industry are among the goals Petersen has as he settles into his new position.

During his time in Afghanistan, he saw how critical it was for farmers to have access to basic infrastructure such as irrigation systems and good roads. “The part we don’t often think about is that there has to be an enabling piece that probably only government or the community can provide,” he said.

The role is one that Petersen believes the Economic Development Commission is well-suited to fill.

The main goal of the EDC’s ag and renewable energy specialist position is to advance agriculture and renewable energy as core industries in Kandiyohi County, support the existing industry and work to attract value-added projects and new opportunities.

Current projects under exploration or development range from anhydrous ammonia production to securing Kandiyohi County as the location for a new University of Minnesota dairy research and education facility. Early discussion is underway about creating an 18-county renewable resources zone in southwestern Minnesota, with state legislative backing for tax incentives.

Petersen said he’s been busy learning about the EDC’s initiatives in agriculture and renewable energy and assessing each project’s potential.

“I really want to have some key focus areas so we can move forward and get something done,” he said.

One of his major roles will be as a liaison between resources and businesses, helping connect people, organizations and leaders so that they work together to advance current projects and new ideas.

“We have this productive capacity. A challenge will be to be proactive and develop ways to use that capacity,” Petersen said. “How do we allow some of these new ideas to sort out so we’re ready for the future?”

He said his experiences in Afghanistan, which included working in Takhar Province with the nonprofit Shelter for Life and a year embedded at a military installation in Helmand Province as an agriculture expert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, made him realize the amount of resources available to the U.S. farming industry and what it means to lack resources.

“Kandiyohi County and the whole west central region has a huge economic resource in these renewable things. Plant something and it will grow,” he said. “I’m really excited about the potential for this west central region and Kandiyohi County. I’m looking forward to meeting with people who have business ideas that can really make use of this tremendous resource we have here.”

Anne Polta

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

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