A war on agriculture?
Though the number of farm families living in Becker County has dwindled over the course of the last half century, agriculture remains one of the region's biggest industries -- as evidenced by the strong turnout at an Agricultural Issues Forum hosted by the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce in Callaway Thursday morning.
"It's still our largest industry," said forum moderator Bruce Hein, a rural Audubon farmer, who said he had been moderating the forum for more than three decades now.
Hein noted that agriculture brings about $300,000 a year into Becker County.
There were approximately four-dozen people in attendance at Thursday's forum, filling the Callaway Event Center almost to capacity.
Though topics covered at the forum included everything from a 2012 legislative update by State Sen. Rod Skoe (D-Clearbrook) to an overview of the county's logging industry by John Swiers of JES Wood Products, the need for better public education on both agricultural and environmental issues seemed to be a common theme.
Jake Hein, who identified himself as "a young farmer" who has been involved in agricultural issues for most of his life -- through his father -- said that there was a real lack of quality education about agriculture in the schools.
"It's a very large concern," he said, adding that there is an atmosphere of 'class warfare' being created because of that lack of knowledge.
"What can we do to increase awareness out there of what we do?" he asked.
"One of the things we've got going for us here is our Ag in the Classroom program," noted Roger Engstrom, a retired dairy farmer from rural Detroit Lakes.
Though the annual Becker County Farm Bureau Ag in the Classroom activity held at M State in Detroit Lakes in March usually involves third- and fourth-grade students, there is curriculum available through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Ag in the Classroom program that covers every age "from kindergarten through senior high," said Callaway farmer Karolyn Zurn.
One of the reasons why ag and other vocationally-based education programs have become more and more scarce in schools throughout Minnesota, Skoe noted during his presentation, is because of the state's decision to switch to a per-pupil funding method for K-12 education many years ago.
Vocational programs are, by their very nature, more expensive to operate than core education programs like math and reading, yet typically have a smaller number of students per class, Skoe added.
"It's really hard for schools to find the resources to fund those more expensive programs," he said.
Another problem, Skoe added, is that there are now people living in urban areas who come from generations of city-dwellers.
People who live in the city "used to have a parent or grandparent who came from a rural area," he said -- but that is no longer the case.
"That is part of what our producer associations are addressing," Zurn said, through the annual "checkoff" program -- part of the proceeds from which goes to support agricultural education and scholarship programs.
"That's a great point," Skoe agreed, adding that he was a supporter of mandatory checkoff programs.
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.