Another very successful year of Farmfest forums has come and gone. After Farmfest is over, it is kind of interesting to look back and see what nuggetsare the take-home messages from the various forums. Concern and emphasis on the future of ag policy and farming was certainly the overall theme at Farmfest in 2011. In addition to the feature forums, special guests at Farmfest included Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and Eric Kaler, the new University of Minnesota (U of M) president. Following are some thoughts from the 2011 Farmfest forums :
- Gov. Mark Dayton referenced the recent state government shutdown, the ultimate settlement, and the challenges that lie ahead. He also pointed out that the Minnesota Department of Agriculture  budget was the only budget that was finalized during the regular legislative session in 2011, and credited Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson for building strong collaborations in the agriculture industry. He also highlighted the significant role that the agriculture industry is playing in helping keep Minnesota’s economy strong, and emphasized the need to enhance exports of Minnesota ag products.
- Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken both commented that the recent compromise in Congress to raise the federal debt ceiling and to make budget adjustments, and indicated that the legislation was not ideal. They acknowledged that the real challenges lie ahead, as Congress makes the budget adjustments necessary to meet the newly laid-out federal spending requirements. Sen. Klobuchar, who sits on the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee , discussed the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead in the next two years, as the next farm bill is finalized in Congress, emphasizing the need to maintain a strong safety net for crop and livestock producers. Sen. Franken stressed the importance of alternative energy resources, and the need to continue development of cellulosic ethanol sources.
- New U of M President Eric Kaler emphasized the importance of the university to the state of Minnesota, and highlighted the significant efforts at the U of M in agricultural research, education and outreach. This topic was further discussed at Farmfest in the feature forum, Keeping the Land-Grant Mission Alive. Bev Durgan, Dean of U of M Extension , was joined by some ag industry leaders, to discuss why public ag research at universities is still very relevant, the changing dynamics of extension and outreach, and the significant role that commodity organizations and other private partners play in the research and outreach efforts of universities.
- A very interesting forum, Designing the Next Farm Bill: Shaping the Future of Rural America, was held at Farmfest. The presidents of the two largest farm organizations in Minnesota – Kevin Paap of Minnesota Farm Bureau  and Doug Peterson of Minnesota Farmers Union  – were joined by ag policy analysts, Chris Clayton of DTN and Dave Ladd of RDL & Associates. The common theme was the large federal budget deficit, and the likelihood of significant cuts to many popular USDA  farm programs . There was general agreement that the direct paymentsreceived by corn , soybean , wheat, cotton and rice producers will likely be cut, if not eliminated in the next farm bill. Many farm organizations and commodity groups, including dairy and livestock producers, are willing to accept the reductions in direct payments, provided that federal programs for crop insurance, dairy, disaster assistance and other safety netprograms are maintained. It was also pointed out that funding authorized under the farm bill only accounts for about 4% of the total federal budget, as well as that food and nutrition programs utilize over three-fourths of the total USDA annual budget.
- Regulation in the agriculture industry was the focus of two forums at Farmfest. A panel of agriculture leaders highlighted some of the challenges that farm operators, especially livestock producers, face when trying to obtain permits, and to meet federal, state and local regulations. The ag leaders also expressed concern for the future regarding potential regulations related to the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, transportation regulations, animal welfare issues, etc. Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson, was joined by officials from several other State agencies, who pledged to streamline the sometimes cumbersome permitting process for small to medium sized farm operations in the state. The state officials also highlighted and emphasized the importance of Minnesota’s agriculture industry, and the willingness to collaborate with ag industry leaders.
- Another feature forum at Farmfest was Finding a Common Message for Agriculture. The forum panel represented several ag leaders from commodity groups and ag organizations, who pointed out the disconnect between food consumers and the farmers that produce the food, and that many times this leads to a large number of misconceptions about production agriculture. The panel also stressed the need for the various farm organizations, commodity groups and others to work together to tell the right message about the agriculture industry. The significant role of the internet and the social media  was highlighted as an important ag communications tool for the future, especially to reach younger audiences.
- As has become tradition, Farmfest concluded by recognizing over 70 County Farm Families of the Year. It is always interesting to hear the diverse and interesting backgrounds of these farm families and their farming businesses, to see the multi-generational aspect of these family farms, and to realize the tremendous amount of agricultural and community leadership that exists throughout the state. Congratulations to all the farm families that were recognized at Farmfest.
Editor’s note: Kent Thiesse is a former University of Minnesota Extension educator and now is Vice President of MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, MN. You can contact him at 507-726-2137 or via e-mail at [email protected]