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Future of agriculture education uncertain

Alternative energy, skyrocketing health care costs, carbon credits, tax law changes pertaining to agriculture ... these were just a few of the topics discussed at Thursday's Ag Issues Forum in the Callaway Community Center.

Sponsored by the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce Agri-Business Committee, the annual forum serves as a vehicle for local farmers and agribusiness professionals to share information, ideas and concerns about agricultural issues with area legislators and local leaders.

One particularly topical item discussed at the forum was the future of agricultural education at the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Nathan Johnson, an ag supervisor for the Extension Service who works in Roseau, was at the forum to discuss changes in the program.

Will Yliniemi, who serves as an Extension ag educator for Becker and Hubbard counties, is retiring in February. There are no current plans to replace him.

Jim Stordahl, who serves as the Extension ag educator for Polk and Clearwater counties, recently learned that the Polk County Commission had voted to eliminate his position and close the McIntosh Extension office in 2009.

At issue for most counties faced with tight financial resources is whether they are getting sufficient value for their money, Johnson noted.

"Truly, Extension's mission is to be the front door to the University of Minnesota ... our goal is to take the research generated across the state and make sure it gets back to you (farmers in outstate Minnesota)," he said.

But in counties like Polk and Becker, where agriculture is still a dominant industry, the question becomes, "if Extension is not there, how do people access this information?"

Yes, much of this information is accessible via the Internet, but "there is still a large segment of people who like to talk to a person face-to-face," Johnson said. "That is the value of a county hiring a person (to fill the ag educator position)."

State Rep. Kent Eken (D-Twin Valley), who was also at the meeting, talked about alternative energy and state budget concerns.

"We've been having problems with deficits since I got in (office) six years ago," Eken said, adding that he feels the Legislature is in "defense mode" during deficit years.

"It makes it difficult to initiate new things," he added.

Things such as investing in alternative energy --something Eken is very interested in doing.

"I want Minnesota to be a leader in the development of new energy sources," he said, adding that this could open up opportunities for adding new jobs as well.

Eken also feels education is a priority investment for Minnesota, because it "attracts good businesses and jobs."

Unfortunately, he added, the new state budget forecast that was released last week will make it difficult to justify increasing the funding for those programs.

"It's a deficit of historic proportions," Eken said, adding that while big cutbacks are going to be necessary, legislators should use a scalpel and not a sledgehammer in making those cuts.

"We need a more balanced approach when dealing with deficits of this magnitude," he continued. "We need to pursue all strategies... everything (including a possible tax increase) should be on the table."

Eken said he feels the budget cuts that will need to be made are going to be harder this time -- because "the overall amount (of the deficit) is bigger, and the resources we have to deal with it are smaller."

Eken also noted that he believes Minnesota has a "regressive" tax policy that puts the majority of the tax burden on low and middle-income residents.

He feels it would be justified for those who are in the upper one percent of the state's income tax bracket to be given a modest tax increase.

Other topics discussed at the forum included the 2008 Farm Bill, changes to the state's tax laws with regard to agricultural land, and, of course, the effect that the nation's economic downturn has had on agricultural markets.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454