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Published September 19, 2011, 10:34 AM

Agriculture, food industry remain major drivers for economic growth

ST. PAUL — A few weeks back, I was talking with an old friend from a town in western Minnesota. He was telling me about an odd problem facing one of the companies in his county. It seems the company was having difficulty finding enough qualified candidates for the multiple open positions the company had at its manufacturing facility.

By: Dave Frederickson,

ST. PAUL — A few weeks back, I was talking with an old friend from a town in western Minnesota. He was telling me about an odd problem facing one of the companies in his county. It seems the company was having difficulty finding enough qualified candidates for the multiple open positions the company had at its manufacturing facility.

The conversation came just a few days after the latest round of negative news stories about the nation’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, and it got me thinking. In the past, the assumption across much of the rural Midwest was that if you lost your job, your best strategy for finding a new job involved pulling up stakes and relocating to a larger metropolitan area. This mindset helped drive a decades-long population drain from the Great Plains and helped fuel the growth of urban areas such as Minneapolis-St. Paul.

However, as the economy has continued to evolve, the jobs landscape seems to have evolved along with it. One of the developments we now are seeing is that, thanks to the sustained strong demand for American food and other farm products, we are finding more employment opportunities outside our cities in areas dominated by agriculture.

Now hiring?

A recent survey of 13,000 Minnesota firms by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development found that during the second quarter of 2011, the number of job vacancies in greater Minnesota expanded almost twice as fast as the number of job vacancies in the Twin Cities. The survey also found that greater Minnesota had a job vacancy rate of 2.6 percent compared with a Twin Cities rate of 2 percent.

Another number that jumps out in the survey is the percentage change in number of job vacancies by industry. Whereas all of Minnesota saw a 32 percent increase in job vacancies from second quarter 2010 to second quarter 2011, one category — the one labeled “Agriculture” increased by 590.5 percent.

Economists will caution us not to place too much weight on a single quarterly report, but I think this is an interesting development — especially given long-standing expectations many people have had about future employment opportunities clustering in our major cities. Those of us who are involved in our farm and food economy should be proud of the nearly 350,000 Minnesota jobs created and sustained by agriculture and food.

Jobs and growth

As summer turns to fall, we’ll be hearing a lot more about how we can kick-start job creation and economic growth. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, for example, is leading a trade delegation to South Korea at the end of September in an attempt to raise Minnesota’s economic reach in that important export market. He also is traveling around the state this fall talking about the jobs issue, and what the state needs to do to make sure we get more of our fellow Minnesotans back to work.

There are many good ideas out there, and the governor and I recognize that one of the best ideas is to build on the positive momentum in our cornerstone agriculture and food industry.

Editor’s Note: Frederickson is Minnesota’s secretary of agriculture.

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