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Northern Ag Expo returns amid transition in the North Dakota Agricultural Association

The Northern Ag Expo, a trade show and educational event, comes to the Fargodome on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, after being cancelled due to COVID-19 a year ago. Gary Knutson, 78, executive director of the North Dakota Agricultural Association, which organizes the event, is retiring after holding that post since 1991. Association will shift to Stu Letcher, 54, who also is executive vice president of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association.

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Gary Knutson (right), 78, executive director of the North Dakota Agricultural Association, is helping manage another Northern Ag Expo, Nov. 30, 2021 to Dec. 1, 2021, at the Fargodome in Fargo, North Dakota. Knutson in the process of handing the reins to his successor, Stu Letcher, 54, who also serves as executive vice president of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association. Photo taken Nov. 3, 2021, in Fargo. Mikkel Pates / Agweek, Nov. 3, 2021, in Fargo, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

FARGO, North Dakota — The Northern Ag Expo will return to the Fargodome on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 2021 after skipping a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Northern Ag Expo serves as the first post-harvest crop trade show — always the week after Thanksgiving. It’s organized by the North Dakota Agricultural Association.

Gary Knutson, long-time executive director of the NDAA, said the event will be back with about 160 exhibitors and an educational program. Most exhibitors are members. Other than last year's pandemic, the show had never been canceled in 30 years.

The event typically draws 2,500 to 4,000 people across a two-day run, learning about the latest in products and services for farmers. It includes education and recertification meetings for crop applicators.

“The people that are here are basically here to learn about new products, technology, or question the manufacturer on an issue,” Knutson said. “It’s a good, active group.”

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Speakers will include an array of North Dakota State University Extension Service experts, as well as specialty specialty topics representatives of companies. Knutson is finalizing this years speakers for the show, a group encompassing agricultural input suppliers — seed, feed, fertilizer, and chemicals.

One of the headliners at 1 p.m., at the show on Nov. 30, will be former U.S. House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, who will discuss his efforts to create a coalition for agricultural advocacy in Washington.

Show-goers will see cutting edge technology, to complement new capabilities in robotics and autonomous issues. One booth this year will feature an autonomous grain cart.

“I think those things are going to be exciting, but will take some investment — and a move — for a new way of doing tillage or harvesting,” he said.

Knutson expects many of the exhibitors will be able to demonstrate new smartphone apps, specific to monitoring yields, soil, or other purposes.

“For example, the biggest issue in spray drift seems to be more of a management or stewardship practice than anything — clean the nozzle, have the right nozzle adjustment,” he said.

Organization shift

Behind the scenes, NDAA is working through a management transition. Knutson is retiring from his position and the association on July 1, 2021, started a management agreement with the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association. Stu Letcher, executive vice president of the NDGDA, is taking on both executive roles under a new management agreement. The groups are co-located in north Fargo.

There is a 30% overlap in membership between the two groups.

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The NDGDA organized in 1911 and has about 300 elevator members. The NDAA organized in the early 1940s. It also has about 300 members, including agronomy centers, consultants, or manufacturer representatives.

The NDAA started as a “fertilizer advocacy club organization,” Knutson said. A pesticide association joined in, and then the seed trade, and finally certain equipment dealers.

In the past two legislative sessions (2019 and 2021), NDAA and NDGDA worked closely together on such bills as agricultural suppliers liens, which affect both membership groups. They provide information to the North Dakota Legislature, which must make ag safety and other considerations work for agriculture and its neighbors in towns and cities.

Ag as a passion

Knutson started with the NDAA in 1991 — 30 years ago. A self-described “farm boy from Oakes, North Dakota,” Knutson earned an agricultural economics degree from North Dakota State University, and then a master’s degree in marketing as well as other advanced training in lending. He had other brief stops working for the North Dakota Farm Bureau and student recruiting North Dakota State University.

“Agriculture has always been my passion, if you will,” Knutson said.

The bulk of Knutson’s earlier career was in agricultural banking in Moorhead, Minnesota. The NDAA post was a “good fit,” he said.

“I love agriculture,” he said. “All my friends, basically, are still in the industry.”

Knutson helped launch the Northern Ag Expo in the Fargodome in 1993. It was one of the dome’s early events. The event had an earlier life as an educational event with an annual NDSU’s “Short Course and Trade Show,” which had been held with about 50 exhibitors in the NDSU field house.

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The NDAA has a wide-ranging purpose. Besides managing Northern Ag Expo, it supports regular, annual training sessions that draw dozens of members for ongoing needs. They organize annual safety training sessions across the state on specific topics, such as anhydrous ammonia application.

Once or twice a year, they support events for particular hot topics.

“Say, there’s something to do with banning a certain pesticide incorporation at a certain stage of the plant — we need to get that word out,” Knutson said.

They also help as the industry is grappling with various shortages of supply and transportation restrictions.

Long-time synergy

“We’ve worked on that for the past five years — hours of service for these drivers, and exemptions for certain crises, for delivery of product,” Knutson said. “There are resolutions possible, but it takes time when it has to go through D.C.”

The NDAA host discussions on federal issues, involving agencies such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the EPA. Discussions hosted by the association can draw people from northern Minnesota, South Dakota, and other states. The organization gathers and offers input on label requirements for pesticides.

Letcher said he’s been grateful for Knutson’s mentorship. Letcher said a connection between the elevator and farm input associations is a natural fit. They are associated in some area states — even merged, as in Wisconsin.

Letcher is accustomed to succeeding an experienced pro. At age 54, he took leadership of the NDGDA in 2014, upon the retirement of long-time predecessor Steve Strege. Like Knutson, Letcher also holds an NDSU ag economics degree. He had a 30-year career in the U.S. Army Reserves and is the mayor of Hatton, North Dakota. He joined the NDGDA staff in 1998, and headed its safety and health programs.

When the Northern Ag Expo is completed, Letcher and his employees will turn attention toward 109th NDGDA convention, Jan. 16-18, 2022, at the Fargo Holiday Inn. That event has a 85-unit trade and draws 600 to 700 people.

Letcher said he's optimistic about both events, although COVID-19 and other factors, will have their effects.

“I think there’s pent-up demand,” he said, saying farmers and ag industry people are anxious to see products and each other in person.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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