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Beet ambassador

WAHPETON, N.D. - Mike Metzger is the kind of guy who greets people with a big smile, a warm handshake and a booming voice. When he talks about his recent trip to Washington with other members of MARL IV, his level of enthusiasm goes even higher.

WAHPETON, N.D. - Mike Metzger is the kind of guy who greets people with a big smile, a warm handshake and a booming voice. When he talks about his recent trip to Washington with other members of MARL IV, his level of enthusiasm goes even higher.

"Wow!" he exclaims. "It was my first time to Washington. I've never taken the initiative to sit down and write a letter to my congressman or call him up and tell him what I think about a subject.

"Having gone out there and met with some of the people we did, I really feel like I made a tremendous difference in the sugar industry."

What is MARL?

MARL stands for Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership Program, created by Southwest Minnesota State University but privately funded. The two-year educational experience includes nine three-day sessions, a six-day national study (the Washington trip) and a two-week international study tour.

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Thirty participants are selected from applications, representing farmers, agribusiness leaders and community development personnel. Metzger is an agriculturist at the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D.

"I had talked to a couple of people who did this before, and they said it'd be a good fit for me," Metzger says. "You know, a leadership class or role is never a bad thing on a resume.

"Each session we've had so far has, honestly, exceeded my expectations. It's just fantastic. I think it's going to make me a better person, a better employee and a lot more active as a leader in my community, and that's what the program is designed to do.

"This is kind of the little spark that lights your fire."

Upon arriving in Washington early this month, the group's first scheduled meeting was with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, who took some heat from the group on CAFTA and NAFTA.

"I don't think they realize the impact of all the foreign sugar coming in, what a difference it's going to make on our domestic price. I gave it to him with both barrels," Metzger says.

He describes the ag secretary as "very professional. When he walks into a room, he commands power, respect, the whole nine yards."

"I never thought in my life I'd be sitting down in the Virginia Room of the USDA building talking to the secretary of agriculture about sugar," Metzger says. "You know, this little farm kid from Climax (Minn.) doing this, it's pretty neat."

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Other appointments

The group also met with Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. Metzger says Peterson told him he's not expecting any significant sugar program changes in the next farm bill.

Metzger describes the Coleman meeting as more tense. "Coleman had pledged total support for the sugar program, but at the last minute, he voted for CAFTA and we lost it by one vote. When I asked him about it, he presented his case and said we have to get along with the cotton, rice and peanut growers."

Metzger says he reminded Coleman that he was elected to represent local interests in the U.S. Senate. At that point, Metzger says, an aide reminded Coleman that he was short on time, so the senator adjourned the meeting.

"But it was neat to just meet him and tell him my opinion," Metzger adds. "Whether it goes in one ear and out the other, at least he heard it."

"There's a fine line to walk. You know, the organizers fight tooth and nail to get these kinds of appointments and they line up some pretty high caliber people. I'd like to spent the whole week walking in with my Minn-Dak cap on and just firing away at sugar the whole time.

"But I want the next class to have the same experience, and if I'm in there being kind of a jerk about it, they're not going to very willing to have a group back. That's part of the program, too. You learn that line, and you learn when and when not to bite your tongue."

An impromptu visit to a Washington church turned into a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Metzger and a half-dozen other MARL participants. Walking around the White House area, the group spotted St. John's Church and decided to enter. Services were just starting, and the group slid into a pew near the front of the church.

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"Pretty soon, by gosh, in the pew right behind us, here comes President Bush and the first lady, and they sat right down," Metzger says. "I shook his hand about four or five times, and we visited with him a little bit. It was a pretty neat experience."

Rooted in ag

Metzger may be the ideal messenger to plead sugar's case in Washington. His father has been involved in the seed business for years. His grandfather, Stewart Bass, is a former vice president of agriculture for American Crystal.

"He's kind of my biggest inspiration for getting involved in the sugar industry," Metzger says. "He started out as a field man in Missoula, Mont., then moved to Denver. Then when the growers bought Crystal up here, he assumed the VP role and did that for about 20 years."

Metzger has an undergraduate degree in microbiology and a graduate degree in plant pathology from North Dakota State University in Fargo.

"Yeah, I'm kind of a nerd," he laughs. "Disease Boy is my title down here."

He's the youngest of eight staffers in a small office space at Minn-Dak's headquarters in Wahpeton.

Wider knowledge

While Metzger is an expert in sugar, he says participation in MARL has widened his knowledge of agriculture. In discussions about the ethanol boom, he's learned that $3.50 corn is great for growers, but a big concern for beef and pork producers in southern Minnesota.

"I'm learning more about everything from wind energy, to basic corn production, to hog and dairy production. Stuff I never knew or never took the time before to figure out.

"I think when we're done, I'll have such a broad picture of Minnesota agriculture. And you learn just as much, if not more, from visiting and interacting with your class members as we do listening to speakers."

The current MARL session continues through April 2008. For more information, go to www.southwest.msus.edu/-

marl.

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