Ag info and a beer

FARGO, N.D. -- Sharing agricultural knowledge between farmers and urbanites has grown, but one Red River Valley farm group has decided to take it to the next level. The group creates a welcoming atmosphere with snacks and beer while engaging in t...

Andy Maier, a farmer from Maier Farms at Barnesville, Minn., chairman of the ClayWilkin Corn and Soybean Growers Association, spoke the group's "Conversations on Food and Farming" event, June 25, 2017, in Fargo. Photo taken June 25, 2017, in Fargo, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

FARGO, N.D. - Sharing agricultural knowledge between farmers and urbanites has grown, but one Red River Valley farm group has decided to take it to the next level. The group creates a welcoming atmosphere with snacks and beer while engaging in topics such as GMOs. The ClayWilkin Corn and Soybean Grower Association sponsored the "Conversations on Food and Farming" event backed by a number of regional and national sponsors. A volunteer group called Ugly Food of the North hosted the event at the Fargo Brewing Company.

Megan Myrdal of Moorhead, Minn., co-founder of the Ugly Food of the North project, promoted it through social media and moderated the panel.

The event drew the consuming public, and speakers spanned a range of commercial conventional ag participants - from agricultural research and extension, to farmers growing for conventional food-grade markets, to biotech commodity markets..

Missing trust

Tom Peter is a retired former Monsanto research executive. For three years now Peter has taken on a second career as a sugar beet weed specialist for the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University. Peter decried the lack of trust in the American food supply. He urged people to rely on extensive government vetting to determine whether biotechnology - genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs - are healthy.


Julie Garden Robinson, NDSU Extension specialist on nutrition, sees a future where food and nutrition will be geared toward individuals and seconded Peters' endorsement of the agency they both work for.

Peters said biotech generally implies inserting genetics from one species of plant into another and has "taken a lot of the environmental variation out of agriculture." He said a second process of gene editing - simply taking genes out of a species without inserting anything - likely will face a similar level of regulation because of the potential effects. He said editing genes for a corn plant could affect germination, height, and other characteristics in the same way that GMO changes might.

Andy Maier, chairman of the ClayWilkin Corn and Soybean Growers, who farms near Barnesville, Minn., believes farmers are "living in a Twitter tagline world, where people can say 10 words and everybody believes it," Maier said "People talk about GMOs like it's a bad thing. It's made a huge difference and has made things more efficient, and friendlier on the environment."

Extreme views

Pat Bresnahan is a partner/director of Sinner Brothers & Bresnahan Farm, near Casselton, N.D. The farm is associated with SB&B Foods, Inc., which specializes in food grade soybeans for sale primarily in Asian markets where genetically-modified soybeans are not wanted, so they contract with growers to produce conventionally-bred soybeans. That market is becoming more specific to particular varieties of beans for specific purposes - consistent from week to week.

Bresnahan said he is "indifferent" to GMOs, and delivers non-GMO products to Asia because that's what the customers there want. Bresnahan said social media "kind of boosts the extremes" in discussions about GMOs. "In most cases a guy doesn't want to walk into the middle of it because if you have just a standard opinion you kind of get lost. Then you get drug into almost saying things you don't believe," he said.

Maier and Bresnahan agreed that there will be a future in autonomous vehicles to tend and maximize production on areas within fields. They both think the days of 130-foot-wide sprayers and 80-foot wide planters will give way to mechanization on a smaller scale.

A seldom-heard voice in the food conversation came from Tim Rhode, store director for the Cash Wise Foods, Inc., in Fargo. Rhode talked about how the food retailing industry is dealing with price deflation and ever-smaller margins. He noted that everyone seems to be selling food these days, including the big-box hardware retailer Menards. And a year ago retail dollars to restaurants exceeded dollars to grocery stores.


Misfit food

Rhode said that as newspaper circulation declines, grocery stores are energetically looking for ways to connect to consumers through loyalty programs and direct marketing on the internet. He said his store has 75 kinds of organic produce and he is trying to grow and price a market for "misfit" produce - items that are often wasted because they're cosmetically not what consumers want. They are the wrong size or shape, or have blemishes, but are just as wholesome as the conventional produce.

That was music to the ears of Myrdal, who promotes "ugly food," another name for misfit food. Myrdal grew up on a farm near Park River, N.D. A 2009 graduate of Concordia College in dietetics, she received a masters in nutrition from North Dakota State University and was a family consumer science agent with the NDSU Extension Service.

Today as an independent consultant, Myrdal likes to promote consumers' relationship with their food. The Ugly Food of the North project formed in August 2015 as a collaboration with the Red River (farmers) Market. One of her interests is to save some of the 30 to 40 percent of food resources that go to waste every year.

Maier was pleased with the event, which followed a less formal event last March. Maier isn't sure whether other counties in the state do anything similar.

He said the ClayWilkin Corn and Soybean organization has been around for more than 25 years and once was more focused on communicating internally within the farming community, rather than connecting with the urban public. They'd been doing test plots and plot tours, but some of those have become less relevant.

"We're one of the fortunate counties in that we have a population center - Fargo-Moorhead - right in our backyard," he said. "Consumer education and outreach are very important to the future sustainability of growing corn and soybeans."

It's about building relationships with "customers who wouldn't know a farmer or have contact with agriculture."


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