MORGAN, Minn. — It was good to be back at Farmfest once again; and as usual, my first stop was the Minnesota Corn Growers’ exhibit. Why? Because of their sweetcorn-flavored free ice cream offerings. It is also a tremendously convenient spot for quick interviews with lots of key people such as Kevin Paap, President of the Minnesota Farm Bureau.
I’ve known Paap for many years and was curious to hear what he thought are the big issues facing farmers today. “Much the same as past years,” Paap quickly answered, “the growing disconnect of consumers and a decreasing number of elected officials from agriculture and rural Main Streets. We’re becoming another generation removed from Grandpa and Grandma’s farm.”
Might this growing disconnect of elected officials stem from so few of them anymore have a farming background? “Very true,” Paap replied, “and unfortunately, fewer and fewer with each new turn of elected officials — be that state assemblies or U.S. Congress. But it’s not just farm issues. People won’t fight for an issue if they don’t understand it. Most things we can explain, but not in a 30-second sound bite which seems mostly the big play in television news anymore. Yet building trust with consumers and elected officials is vital to our future.”
“Technology continues to ramp up change in production agriculture,” Paap went on to say, “However, one thing that doesn’t change is our commitment to taking care of the land, the animals we raise, and preserving our natural resources.
With crops withering across Minnesota and the Dakotas, I asked for Paap’s take on this 2021 season. “One thing I’ve learned in 16 years as Minnesota Farm Bureau President is, don’t talk about the weather and my own farming situation to a reporter — even you Dick — because always someone is worse off,” said Paap. “A rain within the next few days will make a difference. Most people — especially non-farmers — have no idea that at this stage a corn field needs the equivalent of an inch of moisture per week. We just don’t have those reserves right now … our soil moistures are pretty well depleted. But there’s an offset: this dry season has driven corn roots deep enough to still find some soil moisture. And thanks to new genetics, some corn hybrids are relentless in their quest to produce yields — even with minimal rains.”
Despite his “don’t talk to reporters” rule, I know Kevin doesn’t duck away from an unreasonable question. So I asked how much below last year’s record corn yields will your farm do this year? Paap answered: “At this stage, I think we still have potential for a reasonable crop. Yes, last year was my best crop in my 39 years of farming, so let’s not compare to last year. I’m not giving up on APH (actual production history) yields. On soybeans it’s still early August and with rain in the forecast I’m going to remain optimistic. That’s why we farm. And daily contact with the good Lord is vital also.”
As President of a large agriculture organization and Paap’s newest endeavor as county commissioner, I was curious about his view of politics in general. “It’s obvious we’re becoming more polarized on a lot of issues,” stated Paap. “In agriculture, we lead by example: working together works better. Going one direction for four years, then another direction the next four years simply doesn’t work in America.”
Not long ago, Paap announced his retirement as Farm Bureau President. But that doesn’t mean he will be idle. “I was fortunate to be elected a county commissioner here in Blue Earth County. And with all the issues on water, I’m certain we’ll have challenges. But more important, I’ve a 2-year old grandson just a half mile down the road, and another grandson on the way, so more ‘Grandpa time’ with my grandchildren is my future. Yes, my sons have taken over the farming operations; but when extra help is needed, we all pitch in. Yes, more acres than when I started, but it’s still a family farm … and our family keeps growing too. We’re now into the third generation of Papp farmers.”
On that note, I bid Paap a good day. Without leaving the Corn Growers’ tent and into my second ice cream offering, I met Carl Bednarski, who is President of the Michigan Farm Bureau.
“What part of Michigan for you, Carl?” I asked to break the ice.
“Up in that thumb area,” Bednarski replied, holding up his left hand with the palm facing out. “Look at your left hand and we’re about half-way up.”
Bednarski grows corn, soybeans, dry beans, sugar beets and wheat. He is pleased with his crops. “We had drought issues early on this growing season,” he said, “but now in early August things are looking pretty good. Timely rains get much credit.”
Bednarski said Michigan Farm Bureau is at about 220,000 members, currently involving about 43,000 farm families. “Getting young farmers involved is the challenge,” he admitted, “but that’s also our future.”
At 59 years old, Bednarski sees many more years with Farm Bureau and farming. “My wife often asks me, ‘When are we going to have a hobby so we can just relax and do nothing?’ I respond, “I have a hobby … its called farming. So when I stop enjoying my hobby, that’s when I’ll likely stop farming too!”
The Michigan dignitary sees two top issus facing agriculture these days: labor and environmental issues. “It’s ridiculous how farmers get attacked on the environmental front,” Bednarski said. “People forget we’ve raised our families here for generations. We are part of this land. We are not going to abuse this land that creates our own sustenance. We are the true conservationists of America and we need to get that message across to everyone — consumers and politicians.
“Labor is an issue wherever you go anymore,” he continued. “The ongoing aid packages of this current government aren’t helping the situation either. Paying unemployed people more than if they were working is absolutely stupid!”
Bednarski seemed to be enjoying himself and Minnesota hospitality. “It’s just a two-hour flight from my area, so coming to Farmfest was a treat!” he exclaimed. “A great show, lots of exhibitors … I’ll have a chance to visit with our National Farm Bureau President, Zippy Duvall from Georgia. Plus, of course, I check up on Kevin to see how he’s treating you Minnesota folks too. I’m having a great time!”
So I’m still at the Minnesota Corn Growers’ tent, thinking about one last ice cream for the road, when in walks MCGA Board Member Harold Wolle. My friendship with Wolle goes back to a church missionary trip to Africa 20 years ago.
I motioned toward a huge banner on the MCGA tent wall which reads: “Unleaded Octane 88.” Being curious by nature, I asked Wolle what’s that all about?
“Because ethanol fuels continue vital in the energy world and the Minnesota Corn Growers have long championed these fuels produced from Minnesota grown corn, we’re now encouraging Minnesota gas stations to market ‘Unleaded 88’ which is 15 percent ethanol fuel content,” Wolle said. “As you know, all regular gas in Minnesota has 10 percent ethanol; but Unleaded 88 is 15 percent ethanol. This higher octane fuel is usually 3 to 10 cents cheaper and produces fewer emissions … just a good deal for consumers.”
MCGA hopes Unleaded 88 would soon become a mandated fuel by Minnesota government action. “That was a priority of Corn Growers at this last legislative session,” Wolle admitted, “but Covid changed the scenario. The bill we were advocating made it out of both the Senate and House Ag Committees. However, the oil folks don’t want give up any of their market share. I’m told it ran into some issues in the Commerce Committee; so we’ll fire up and push for better results next time.
Wolle went on to remind me Mexico and Canada are solid buyers of U.S. ethanol. “Yes, both of our good neighbors continue to be buyers … in fact, a 10 percent ethanol fuels market nationwide in Mexico was being talked; but I understand that got cut back to 5.8 percent. However, I’m told we’re now up to 440 stations in Minnesota with E85 pumps too. But now look for a big move to Unleaded 88 which is already available at Casey outlets, several Cenex and Quick Trip stations too. And according to EPA, Unleaded 88 is cleared for any vehicle 2001 and newer.“
I reminded Wolle of our visit to a remote country church in Arica some years back. “That was a trip you and I will always remember,” Wolle beamed, “and treasure as well. Yes, you and I were casually visiting with two ladies of the church. We noticed both had umbrellas. We asked why? They both replied, ‘Because if a sudden shower erupts, we’d need our umbrellas. Our church roof leaks badly but we have no money to fix it.’ So we agreed to see if we could raise enough money when we got back home so these two South African women might have a new rainproof roof over their country church.”
These two sweet ladies even told Harold and I they would sing to us if this new roof happened over their church. Thanks to generous donations from our Minnesota Diocese the new roof did happen. However, Harold and I never got back for our song fest from the ladies of this country parish.