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Ag and Renewable Energy Committee acts as promoter for agriculture in Kandiyohi County

The Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission Ag and Renewable Energy Committee has worked for nearly 20 years to promote agriculture in the county. They've worked with numerous new and existing businesses while also educating the public about the importance of agriculture.

Teeth from a corn combine sitting in field at sunset in November 2020.
Agriculture, whether it is growing and harvesting corn or raising dairy cows or finding new ways to power homes, has been a big part of the history of Kandiyohi County. For nearly 20 years, the Agriculture and Renewable Energy Committee of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission has been one of the largest promoters and supporters of agriculture in the county. It has helped bring about major projects such as Bushmills Ethanol and Meadow Star Dairy, and is now working on such things as industrial hemp production.
Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune file photo
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WILLMAR — Since the county's earliest days, agriculture has played an outsized role in the economic health and vitality of Kandiyohi County. The county often ranks in the top 10 in the state for various agricultural productions including turkeys, poultry, sheep, sugar beets and aquaculture.

In the 2017 USDA Farm Census, Kandiyohi County ranked 10th in the state for market value of agricultural products sold, at $424,078,000.

Given those numbers, it might be surprising that some feel it is difficult for agricultural businesses and producers to be heard by those in power and by the public at large.

"Agriculture hits so much of our community it is almost easy to overlook," said Sarah Swedburg, business development manager for the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission. "It is everywhere, but it is so everywhere I don't think people realize all that it touches."

Kim Larson, Kevin Halvorson and Sarah Swedburg seated at table
From left, EDC Agriculture and Renewable Energy Committee members Kim Larson and Kevin Halvorson sit with EDC Business Development Manager Sarah Swedburg to talk about the committee's past, successes and future on Sept. 25, 2022. Not pictured is Keith Poier.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Since 2004, the EDC's Ag and Renewable Energy Committee has been working diligently to both promote agriculture and its connected businesses, and to help new and existing businesses succeed.

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"Farmers need a spokesperson, and I think that is an important job we have," said committee member Keith Poier.

The committee started out simply as a task force. But, in 2004, when agricultural businesses were looking for more support from the EDC, the task force became a standing committee with its own budget. Committee members meet regularly to discuss, assist and promote agribusiness and renewable energy projects.

"It isn't hard to argue that ag is a cornerstone of business in the county. Just Jennie-O itself is an agribusiness," said Kim Larson, long-time committee member.

The Bushmills Ethanol Plant in Atwater, Minnesota, on July 19, 2022.
One of the first major projects with which the Ag and Renewable Energy Committee was involved was the Bushmills Ethanol Plant located near Atwater.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Recruiting businesses to Kandiyohi County

The first big project the committee helped come to fruition was the Bushmills Ethanol plant in Atwater. The EDC helped put together a financial package that helped make the plant a reality in Kandiyohi County. Part of that package was a $6.1 million bond from the county.

"The EDC has a lot to do with Bushmills," said Kevin Halvorson, committee member.

Another big project that the committee worked hard on was the Meadow Star Dairy near Pennock. That story began when an agriculture report showed a worrying dip in the number of dairy cows in the county. The committee was so concerned that members tried to find out-of-state dairies to bring to the region.

"We went out to California and tried to recruit dairies that were being forced out," due to urban sprawl around Los Angeles, said Larson. "We figured 'why not here?'"

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While no California dairies took Kandiyohi County up on its offer, not long afterward Riverview Dairy approached the county about building a 9,590-head dairy operation near Pennock. The committee was a big supporter of the project, and celebrated when the dairy finally opened in 2015.

Meadow Star Dairy
Another major success with which the committee was the opening of Meadow Star Dairy near Pennock. The dairy milks thousands of cows a day, and has played a large role in keeping the dairy industry going in Kandiyohi County.
Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune file photo

Looking ahead to new crops, innovations

Going forward, the committee has turned to a new crop — industrial hemp. While there are many challenges surrounding hemp, not least the erroneous assumption that it is similar to marijuana, the committee sees a lot of potential for the plant and its many uses.

"Our county is very dependent on two crops — corn and soybeans," Poier said. "We need more diversity out there."

The hope is hemp could provide some of that diversity. The committee has created a hemp subcommittee, which focuses purely on that crop, and members have attended conferences and visited businesses to learn more.

"We are seeing some success on that, although we got to keep working on it to make it successful," Poier said.

080219.N.WCT.AG INNOVATION.0218.jpg
It was a full house while Bethleen McCall, an industrial hemp adviser for The Bon Vivant Group, speaks about new opportunities in agriculture regarding the hemp industry in July 2019 during the first-ever Partners in Ag Innovations Conference at MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar. The conference was put together by the Ag and Renewable Energy Committee. The conference was held again in 2021 and 2022, and the committee plans to bring it back in 2023.
Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune file photo

Another area of importance for the committee is renewable energy, because in west central Minnesota a lot of renewable energy projects and ideas have a major agricultural component.

A wind turbine or a large solar array will most likely be installed on farmland, a methane digester needs cows and ethanol needs corn. The committee has been involved in talks and heard presentations on various renewable energy plans and programs, and will continue to do so.

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"It is the direct ties to agriculture for these renewable energy sources that make the difference," Larson said.

Keeping an ear to the ground for new ideas

The ag committee has always prided itself on being forward-thinking and open to hearing about new ideas. It wasn't all that long ago that the thought of making gasoline with corn was considered off the wall. Now it is a huge revenue producer for farmers.

"You don't know what the next great idea is," Halvorson said. "You need to be ready to move on something, to help someone out."

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It is also important to the committee that Kandiyohi County continues to be welcoming. The last thing the committee wants is a great idea from someone in Willmar to become the next big thing somewhere else. The county already has a reputation of being forward-thinking that comes with projects like the MinnWest Technology Campus and being home to businesses such as Jennie-O, Willmar Poultry, RELCO and Epitopix.

"This is why we want to be on the cutting edge," Halvorson said.

As it nears its 20th year, the committee has spent several of its meetings in 2022 going over its mission, goals and future.

"Reflecting on the positive things and taking the moment to say what is next," Swedburg said.

In September, the committee approved its goals for 2022-2023.

They include completing a feasibility study on industrial hemp in Kandiyohi County; creating a resource folder that can be handed out to new farmers; working with both Willmar Community Education and Ridgewater College to hold farm transfer planning classes; and finding new ways to engage school students in agriculture. There will be continued focus on the annual Ag Innovation Conference, as well as perhaps holding an ag event with the Willmar Stingers and supporting area farmers markets.

Education and promotion of agriculture is at the top of the committee's list for the next year.

Naviga Damrongnawin of Lundstrum Farm in Bird Island grabs a handful of fresh carrots for a patron at the Uptown Willmar Farmer's Market on Saturday, July 23, 2022.
Naviga Damrongnawin of Lundstrum Farm in Bird Island grabs a handful of fresh carrots for a patron at the Uptown Willmar Farmer's Market on Saturday, July 23, 2022. The EDC Agriculture and Renewable Energy Committee plan to reach out to the public and promote agriculture in different ways, including assisting county farmers markets and holding public events.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

"I think we see that in a lot of the goals we have set for next year," Swedburg said. "There is a lot of focus on educating the community on agriculture."

The committee is excited to see what the future might bring for agriculture and will continue to be on hand to help make that future a reality, if possible. The committee wants to make sure agriculture remains an important and vital part of the economy, culture and character of Kandiyohi County for generations to come.

"We are a county that is interested in the continued growth and innovation of agriculture," Swedburg said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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