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David Torgerson, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers, talks about wet conditions in the Red Lake Falls, Minn., area on April 23, 2018. Nick Nelson / Agweek

Minn. wheat leader 'pushing the pause button'

If you farm in northwest Minnesota — or grow wheat anywhere in the state — you almost certainly know Dave Torgerson. For three decades, he's played a key role in the Minnesota wheat industry, serving as executive director of both the Minnesota Wheat Research and Promotion Council and the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers.

Now, Torgerson, 56, has announced his retirement from both positions, effective March 31.

"Thirty years is a long time to be doing the same thing. It's been a great experience. But now I'm pushing the pause button for a little while before deciding what to do next," Torgerson said. He and his wife will continue to live in Fertile, Minn.

"There will be some big shoes to fill," Tony Brateng, chairman of the Minnesota Wheat Research and Promotion Council, said of replacing Torgerson.

The two state wheat groups are working on a transition strategy and expect to have many of the details worked out by the end of January, Brateng said.

Torgerson, a Moorhead, Minn., native, spent a great deal of time growing up on the family farm, which raised wheat, in nearby Hawley, Minn. He graduated with degrees in animal science and ag economics from North Dakota State University in Fargo.

He traveled farther — literally to the other side of the world — for his first job after graduation, landing a position with a large Australian wheat farm. Returning home, that experience helped him secure a marketing specialist position with the two Minnesota wheat groups in 1987, then becoming executive director in 1990.

The past three decades have brought successes and challenges to Minnesota wheat. The former include huge yield increases, which Torgerson attributes to wheat growers' willingness to invest in research and then implement what's learned.

The challenges include the onset of scab, a crop disease than can hammer wheat, in the early 1990s. Though much progress had been made, more work remains to be done, experts say.

Minnesota's wheat industry also has faced declining acreage. In the 1980s, farmers typically planted 2.5 million to 2.7 acres annually, with the crop grown across most of the state. Now, Minnesota farmers typically plant 1.1 million to 1.3 million acres annually, most of it in the northwest part of the state.

That reflects changing economics and new, improved corn and soybeans varieties that encourage Minnesota farmers to plant more of those two crops and less wheat.

Northwest Minnesota hasn't been immune to that: corn and soybean acreage has risen there, largely at the expense of wheat. As first soybeans and later corn expanded into northwest Minnesota, Torgerson and the Minnesota wheat groups helped to organize county corn and soybean grower groups in that part of the state. Wheat farmers there were diversifying, to their benefit, and the Minnesota wheat groups wanted to to help its members who were doing so, Torgerson said.

In any case, there's reason to be upbeat about wheat. Agronomic and soil health benefits of growing wheat in a crop rotation are increasingly recognized, which bodes for wheat's future in Minnesota, Torgerson said.

Promoting wheat and working with Minnesota farmers have been satisfying and rewarding, Torgerson said.

"But now it's time to get ready for the next chapter of my life," he said.