MANKATO, Minn. — People in the Mankato, Minn. area are accustomed to hearing Kent Thiesse’s mellow voice over the airwaves and this week is no exception. With nearly 45 years of agriculture experience, Thiesse is known as the “go-to” expert in farming and often appears on television and radio programs. But this week, instead of treating listeners to the latest ag information, Thiesse is talking high school wrestling — another subject he knows quite a bit about. For 14 years, Thiesse has delivered hourly radio reports for radio station KTOE from the Minnesota State Wrestling Tournament — covering teams and wrestlers from throughout southcentral Minnesota.
Wrestling broadcaster is a very small slice of Thiesse’s thick resume which includes other non-agriculture items such as 30 years on the Lake Crystal-Wellcome-Memorial school board; the Lake Crystal Chamber of Commerce; and the Lake Crystal Lions Club.
But it is definitely in the ag arena where Thiesse has cut a wide swathe of dedication and expertise. He is a farm management analyst and currently serves as senior vice president and chief ag loan officer for MinnStar Bank in Lake Crystal.
Not surprisingly, Thiesse’s roots are from the farm. Thiesse was born in Martin County, south of Fairmont, Minn. When he was 12 years old his family moved to the Starbuck, Minn. area in Pope County where his father worked a diversified crop and livestock farm. “My father was probably ahead of the curve on raising soybeans,” Thiesse said. “We grew small grain, some corn to feed the livestock, and hay. The typography between Martin and Pope County is quite different for farming. In Starbuck I picked a lot of rocks!” he chuckled. “Not so much down here.”
During his 10 years as a youth in the 4-H program, Thiesse developed a skill and liking for livestock judging — participating in state livestock shows and was a member of the livestock judging team which went to nationals in 1968.
After graduating from high school, Thiesse obtained a degree at the University of Minnesota in animal science. It was there he developed his love for agriculture education and he left the family farm behind. “(Taking over the farm) might have been a goal at one time,” he admitted, “but Dad had health issues and it didn’t work out at the time. I started channeling my goals in an education direction.”
After a brief stint as a hog buyer for Hormel, Thiesse began a long career with University of Minnesota Extension in 1975. “I was a summer intern for Extension in college,” he said. “I thought it would be a good career.”
His first assignment was in Swift County where his 4-H experiences came in quite handy. He continued his 4-H connection when he moved to Rock County Extension in Luverne, Minn. in 1979. “When I moved to Rock County, one of the first people I met was County Extension Agent Jack Morris. He believed in working with youth and got me involved in leadership activities.”
It was in Rock County where Thiesse started writing and became involved in public speaking. It was also the time he became involved with the Minnesota State Fair, serving as coordinator of the fair’s 4-H Beef Show committee. He also coordinated the Minnesota 4-H Livestock Project Bowl program.
It was also while in Rock County Thiesse was thrown into the middle of the 1980’s farm crisis. “I was involved in the Farm Mediating Program,” he recalled. “All mediation was done then by local Extension, and Rock County had the highest number of mediations in the state.”
In 1987 he joined Blue Earth County Extension and witnessed major changes in the Extension system. “Over that time Extension became more regional — sharing knowledge and assets across county lines,” he said. “We all developed our levels of expertise. Eventually I was strictly an ag educator in farm management.”
It was also during his tenure with Blue Earth County that Thiesse accelerated his involvement in Minnesota agriculture. Since 1988 he has served as coordinator of educational forums at Farmfest. “Farmfest used to be held in Lake Crystal,” he explained. “With my background, it was natural for me to become involved. Over the years, we built up the forums and they changed a lot. We started presenting candidate forums in 1990.” To this day, Farmfest’s candidate forums are a huge draw for the event — featuring political figures from both state and federal arenas.
In 1992 Thiesse obtained his Master of Education degree from the University of Minnesota. He became affiliated with the Minnesota Farm Bureau Association, Minnesota Agri-Growth Council and the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association; and remains connected to those organizations today.
Because of his Extension experience, Thiesse was hired by MinnStar Bank in 2003 to handle agriculture lending and farm management. “I was able to continue some of those roles when switching careers,” he said. “The bank has been very willing to allow me to continue my other activities. I still have high regards for Extension service.”
“Sometimes we forget banks are borrowing out someone else’s money,” Thiesse stated. “We try to head off problems before it becomes an adversarial relationship. The ‘80s caught people really off-guard. It was such a quick decline with over-lending against assets and assets lost value. We were also dealing with ramped-up interest rates.”
“There are still some people struggling,” Thiesse went on to say, “but it’s not as wide-spread. Today, bankers do a lot more up-front financial work. Farmers are also more astute — doing more of their own work before meeting with bankers.”
Thiesse voiced concern over consolidation in agriculture — from major ag companies to larger farms swallowing up smaller family farms. But from a standpoint of a free economic system, he’s not sure what can be done to turn the trend around. “It’s difficult to do,” he admitted. “It’s not just farming, it’s all the way down the line. Look at retail food and what’s happening with small grocery stores. People are looking for incentives to break it down and it’s a good talking point; but in economics, it’s hard to do. These companies are not doing it just to get bigger, there’s a financial advantage.”
For those looking to start their own farming operation, Thiesse sees it as a daunting challenge. “To start from scratch, it’s nearly impossible,” he said. “For one thing, the scale is bigger than starting out years ago. Most beginning farmers are connected by family.”
“On the plus side, we have better tools for starting than we did 20 years ago. Federal backing makes it easier for lenders to take on the risk because new farmers don’t have a track record to show they can pay back a loan. Continuing and enhancing those programs is one way to help out.”
Farmers also face opposition to large-scale operations and modern agriculture practices — a trend Thiesse finds disturbing.
“What’s your definition of large?” Thiesse asked. “More than a 1,000 animal units? I do get bothered by extreme folks who want to get rid of animal agriculture. People like to eat protein and a lot of developing countries are demanding more meat. We had more animals back two to three generations than we do now with the same rivers and streams. Modern livestock operations are getting more blame than they deserve.”
“I’m also concerned on the crop side. GMOs got a bad name. Do we shut science down — limiting ourselves from improved crop genetics? I’m a big believer in research — university or applied research. Today we want to jump ahead and skip that process. Think about the toxic chemicals we were using years ago compared to today. Environmentally and from a personal safety aspect, it’s much better. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg for long-term solutions. Let science make it work.”
“Social media is instant,” Thiesse continued. “It does not allow for research. Things are posted which make people believe that it’s fact.”
So in an effort to state agriculture’s case, Thiesse writes a weekly “Focus on Ag” column which is distributed to several Midwest agriculture publications and web sites, as well as 1,100 subscribers. He also writes a monthly “Ag Outlook” column for the MN Valley Business Magazine and a “Farm Programs” column for The Land.
Thiesse credits his wife Liz for copious amounts of love and support. They have two children with families of their own and four grandchildren.
When he’s not working, Thiesse is a season ticket holder for both the Minnesota Vikings and Minnesota Gopher football. He is a supporter of FFA and local high school activities. You can even catch him doing some PA announcing for local high school and community events — including the annual “Battle of the Bands” parade in Lake Crystal in June each year.
But this week, it’s all about the wrestling.