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A 'bright spot' for a weak economy

Case IH Plant Manager Kim Heiden, right, welcomes Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., to the podium during a visit Wednesday to the Benson facility. Peterson spoke to about 70 employees during a question-and-answer session after he toured the plant. Tribune photo by Tom?Cherveny

BENSON -- If you're looking for some good economic news, it's here.

"Agriculture has been one of the bright spots in the last couple, three years here that we've been going through some hard times," U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told a gathering of employees Wednesday at the Case IH facility in Benson.

Agriculture's economic importance is easy to see here. The company expanded its workforce by 100 workers in the last two years, according to Kim Heiden, plant manager. It's the largest private employer in Swift County with 430 employees.

It also keeps its wage scale at the upper tier to be the "preferred" employer, according to Heiden. Its work force includes 340 hourly workers in positions ranging from fabricating and welding to painting and assembly, as well as salaried positions involving management, marketing and engineering.

Company officials with Case IH had a simple message for the visiting congressman: Keep the agricultural economy strong.

They also used the opportunity to encourage policies in Washington that are friendly to manufacturing.

Among the concerns are tougher Environmental Protection Agency regulations on diesel emissions, and proposed standards on the dust created by harvest equipment.

Peterson spoke to employees of the plant about his own concerns with the EPA. The 7th District congressman said that agriculture could produce 30 to 35 percent of the motor fuels needed in this country as biodiesel, ethanol and other biomass-based fuels.

One way to make that happen would be to put a blender ethanol pump at every gas station in the country, according to Peterson.

He would also like to follow the lead of Brazil where a 26 to 30 percent ethanol blend is already the standard.

He expressed his frustration that the EPA continues to study the proposal to raise the 10 percent ethanol standard to 15 percent. The decision on the issue was to have been made last May.

Agriculture has other challenges too. Peterson noted that the dairy industry has struggled in recent years. He also spoke of the difficulties that cotton farmers in the U.S. have faced, an issue near and dear to the workers in Benson. The Benson plant produces the Case IH line of cotton pickers.

The Benson operation has seen continued and growing demand for its other products, especially the sprayers and larger floaters for applying farm chemicals on fields. More than one-half of the production at the plant is devoted to these large vehicles, which are sold throughout North America.

Heiden is optimistic about the future. He said the company is expecting to increase production in the coming year.

Tom Cherveny

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

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