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Published August 22, 2009, 10:00 PM

PRAIRIE VOICES: Top cropper

After finally becoming North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner — a position he had sought for years — Doug Goehring says his first few months in office have gone well.

By: Mikkel Pates, Grand Forks Herald

Q. You’ve been agriculture commissioner now for four months. Is there anything about the job that is different than you expected?

A. It fits like a glove. In some degree, it’s exactly what I thought.

The position is what you make out of it. You can be as involved as you wish to be. Given everything we do, you can go off in a few directions on a few issues. Or, like me, I am so interested in just about everything concerning our industry that I try to latch on and learn something about all of it. I try to stay in touch with every part.

For example, in North Dakota, we have energy and renewable energy. I’m on the Industrial Commission, so we do a lot of work in that area.

There are all of the different commodities — peas, lentils, soybeans, corn, wheat, livestock and more.

I have such a passion for all of them that I’ve kind of immersed myself on any of those issues that have come up or tried to.

You’re constantly spread thin. You rely on your staff to help you monitor what’s going on — the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water and Clean Air acts — things that affect our lives and our bottom lines.

I’m surprised how easily the doors open up when you call and want to speak to someone at the EPA, with APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) about phytosanitary issues or with the food inspection service about our meat program.

Q. I’m told you’ve continued to manage your farm in addition to being ag commissioner. How’s that going?

A. I’ve been thinking I’ve got to find a manager for 2010. I learned that in the middle of July. I resigned myself to the fact that I can’t physically spend as much time as I want to on the farm. You can’t keep up this pace and then go home and sit on a tractor. I made sure the (ag) industry never suffered for it.

As for the crops, this year the farming has gone pretty well. We’ve got some crops that didn’t get planted, some that were flooded out, some that the mud washed over. What’s standing looks good because it finally got some moisture.

Q. Is there anything within the department that you’d like to see dropped?

A. I can’t say there’s anything I’d really want to drop, but there were things I wanted to find out more about. I had in mind that maybe there would be something we could do better, maybe modify a program.

I don’t wish to pick on government, but sometimes bureaucracies get entrenched in doing things in a certain way and don’t think outside the box. There are things I see, but mostly, I want to learn all I can about a process and the way a program works and the structure of it.

We’re still working in the marketing programs, from the trade issues down to locally grown and Pride of Dakota. It’s not like you have to make your mark on everything, but you want to make sure the program is serving the needs of the people.

Q. Since you’ve arrived, you’ve replaced the two political appointees — your assistant and the deputy commissioner. Any other significant staff changes or departures?

A. Jeff Knudson left for the National Farmers Union (where predecessor Roger Johnson became president and named Knudson vice president of operations).

Patrice Lahlum, policy and communications coordinator, left this month to go into business for herself as a consultant. Other than those, we did lose one livestock services position because of a lack of some federal funds we’d been taking in.

Q. The ag department historically has been heavily involved in the Marketplace for Entrepreneurs, along with U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad. Will that continue?

A. I wish you’d tell me. I haven’t been contacted. It wasn’t my deal, it was Kent Conrad’s. I haven’t been asked to participate, and our department hasn’t been asked.

My staff has asked me if we’re going to be playing a role. I’m not sure. If we’re asked, we’ll look at it. I couldn’t see why we wouldn’t.

Q. Are you disappointed about that?

A. Well, do I think it’s political? Maybe. I guess I could understand if I wasn’t asked, but I think we could put all of that (partisan difference) aside and do something that’s good for North Dakota.

Q. What about other areas in the department. Are there any subject areas you are particularly drawn to?

A. Trade, research, the livestock industry.

Those are areas that had attention before, but I just spend more time with them. The commodities, the commodity groups. I try to think about the big picture — especially with international marketing.

Q. I understand you are heading to China. Is this a trade trip?

A. With respect to my positions (with the United Soybean Board and the United Soybean Export Council), I have opportunities to meet with people and think of ways we can market soybeans. But you also think of how we can market wheat, peas, lentils through things such as the P.L. 480 program. (Public Law 480 or Food For Peace, a government-to-governmnent sales or donation program for commodities.)

I’m going to China through USEC for a global soybean research conference. We’re going to be talking about genomics, pathogens, sustainability and technology. It is showcasing U.S. production agriculture and our genetics to the Chinese and to the world. It just happens to be in Beijing. I’ll have an opportunity to chair a session or sessions for the conference.

This is one of those opportunities where the North Dakota ag commissioner gets to go and make other contacts. I’m coming back through Korea and setting up a meeting with a couple of individuals who are interested in a beef processing plant in North Dakota.

Q. At this point, going into fall, how would you characterize the financial condition and strength of farmers in North Dakota?

A. For the most part, pretty well. They’ve built up some capital and equity after a couple of years with good markets. But producers are talking about where the markets are, who can afford to buy products and whether the dollar (value is going to go up or stay down).

We are an industry that is at the mercy of the market. With the global recession, we’ve lost export markets. We need to be poised to do business as we work our way out of this recession.

There are segments of our industry that are hurting. Swine is not a big industry in our state, but it has seen fluctuations in the past several months that have eroded some security there. Prices are all over the board, and we’ve lost a lot of swine producers.

Dairy? We’re losing $800 to $1,000 per head annually. You wake up in the morning, and you know you’re going to milk cows losing money at it. Do you pull the pin?

The problem is that there’s been a global economic collapse, and now we’re sitting with 10 percent more production than we know what to do with. That’s why we’ve seen a 55 percent drop in milk prices and a 20 percent drop on the shelf price.

Still, this isn’t like the 1980s, where it was the banks pulling the pin.

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