COVER STORY: Working for wheat

CROOKSTON, Minn. -- The American Legion parking lot is filled to overflowing with pickup trucks. Inside, the meeting hall is buzzing with some 70 wheat growers from northwest Minnesota. Program booklets are available at the sign-in table, stacks ...

CROOKSTON, Minn. -- The American Legion parking lot is filled to overflowing with pickup trucks. Inside, the meeting hall is buzzing with some 70 wheat growers from northwest Minnesota. Program booklets are available at the sign-in table, stacks of seed variety and cropping trials reports are on hand nearby, and there's plenty of hot coffee and doughuts waiting in the corner. Many of the growers stand in small groups, catching up and trading war stories about the year's harvest. They have come to this Small Grains Update meeting, sponsored by the University of Minnesota Extension Service, the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers and the Minnesota Wheat Research & Promotion Council, to learn how to get higher yields, and at the same time, trim their budgets -- both serious topics this year.

Moving from group to group is a husky, affable guy wearing a plaid shirt, dark slacks and glasses. His name is David Torgerson. He is the executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers and the Minnesota Wheat Research & Promotion Council. Everyone here calls him "Dave." He shakes hands, chats briefly and then moves on.

He has to make sure his four lecturers are set. The Small Grains Update Meeting is about to begin, and it's important that the meeting starts on schedule. They have another meeting in the afternoon in Ada, Minn., and three more the next day. By week's end, he and his team will have held nine meetings in nine towns for more than 600 wheat growers. It is a busy but efficient schedule, putting the right people in the right places at the right times.

"It all started when the wheat growers started to have district meetings, probably 15 to 17 years ago," Torgerson says. "It was hard to get good attendance."

They were competing with county extension meetings and fall farming until Kittson County, Minn., extension agent Curt Nygaard invited growers to participate in Kittson County's crop show. The idea was to pool resources and access to producers. Torgerson brought in speakers from around the state who otherwise would have had to make several more trips to more localized events. The crop show venue worked well, so he began plans to do more of the larger joint meetings.


Getting organized

All this organizational ability has been a part of Torgerson's life since college. He attended high school in Moorhead, Minn. His family had a small farm in Hawley, Minn.,

"My Dad taught high school in Fargo, (N.D.) so we lived in Moorhead in the fall, winter and spring, and we spent a lot of weekends and summers in Hawley," he says. "We had both worlds."

They farmed wheat and hay during their summers on the hobby farm. It was then that Dave took a liking to agriculture. After high school, he went on to North Dakota State University in Fargo. He enrolled as an agricultural economics major, but soon discovered a keenness for animal sciences. He continued to enroll in more of those courses until he'd drifted a bit too far from his major. In his fourth year, he realized he would have to take almost all ag economics course to graduate.

"But if I went one more year, I could get a double-major in animal science and ag economics," Torgerson says. "So that's what I did."

During all this, he had been in a lot of on-campus organizations, including the Saddle and Sirloin Club, an agricultural promotion and education club, and Alpha Zeta, an honorary agricultural fraternity.

"There were a lot of activities, learning how to work with people and organize things," he says. "There were clubs that put on a big event, so that was a real good learning experience."

Down under


After graduation, Torgerson went to eastern Australia and worked on a large wheat farm for four months in the wide, open plains of New South Wales. One of the first things he discovered was that the Aussie farmers often have huge fields, by U.S. standards. Big enough, in fact, to get lost in.

"I was out in one field at night. It was dry and we were working it up and you could hardly see where you were going. There were no lights, it was pretty much Outback, and there were no points of reference," he says.

He was turning around in the field when he got lost. After much searching and peering into the dark, he finally had to call in on his radio for some help. He soon was righted again, though the "Yank" did have to take a good bit of ribbing for it.

When the wheat farm work was done, he decided to do a little exploring before heading for home.

"I didn't have any plans, I was alone a lot, so it was kind of getting me out of my comfort zone and having to stop and talk to people and get to know them," he says.

He bought a car and traveled around taking odd jobs to support himself. He stopped in at several farms and introduced himself.

"They were just friendly and willing to talk," Torgerson says. "They wanted to know about the U.S. and I wanted to know more about Australia."

He considers his time on the road a good learning experience.


"Sometimes you just pitch your tent on the roadside, and you never know what you're going to do the next day," he says. "I think it was not just agriculture that you learn, it was more the people and you actually learn about yourself, sitting there alone, thousands of miles away from home."


Torgerson returned to Minnesota in spring 1987 and started looking for a job.

"I applied for poultry feeding specialist and different things with companies that had feeds," he says.

But the offers weren't coming right away, so he helped his brother in law raise corn and soybeans near Barnes-ville, Minn. for a while. And then a marketing job turned up at the wheat checkoff council.

"I think one of the things that really helped was my experience in Australia, understanding kind of an international perspective," he says.

He would focus on the wheat markets and write about supply and demand issues for the organizations' magazine and newsletters.

In Minnesota, the checkoff program is partnered with the growers' association. They share the staff, though each has its own board of directors.


The checkoff "council pays our salaries, then the growers association contracts for our time," Torgerson says. "Both organizations are trying to do the same thing. They're trying to improve the profitability of wheat production, but they go about it in different ways."

The growers association concentrates on lobbying efforts, information and education. The checkoff council focuses on research and promotion. The information education is led by the growers association but supported by the checkoff council, he says. The formula works, and Minnesota helped pioneer it.

"I think 15 to 20 years ago it was just Minnesota and Texas that had that," he says. "Since then, more and more of the states have been going that way. I know Colorado has gone that way, and Kansas and Washington have. South Dakota works really close together and North Dakota has two separate staffs, but they do work really closely together, too."

Scab outbreak

That ability to work together was never more important than in 1993, when scab hit the Red River Valley.

"When scab hit big time in the valley, nobody knew what was happening. Grain buyers weren't buying it. We

didn't know what the value was. There were so many issues," Torgerson says. "The wheat growers knew how big of a problem it was, but it took that organization of growers and ideas coming together to do what we did."

The growers stepped up and took the lead. They got the experts together to build a knowledge base on scab amongst the growers and researchers in the region.


"Individuals said, 'The state has got to help. We don't have enough money to fund research. They've got to put money in,'" he says.

They held a hearing with Minnesota legislators in Crookston with testimony from growers and researchers so they would understand how serious the issues were.

"We were into the hundreds of millions of dollars lost to this region's economy because of it," he says. "It was a huge story. There are still people that have the magazines that show people burning these crops because they weren't worth anything."

It was the farmer leaders in Minnesota who were committed to making progress on the scab issue that drove home the solutions.

"They wouldn't give up," Torgerson says. "The growers had a story to tell, and people listened and the legislators came through."

Those combined efforts brought forth effective fungicides and later, several scab-resistant varieties that still are in use today. Torgerson recalls that time as one of the defining moments for the sister organizations.

Biotech research

Since then, there have been other success stories for the wheat growers and the council.


"We're really making progress on varieties, plus a lot of stuff that has happened in the past 10 or 15 years," Torgerson says.

But that progress is falling behind in comparison with that of corn and soybeans, which both enjoy far greater increases in yield and acres planted. Wheat acreage is in decline in Minnesota.

"They'll continue to decline if we don't do something, so we're really working on trying to find ways to make wheat more competitive," he says.

Biotech wheat is one of those ways. Torgerson is working with national wheat organizations to build a consensus among the wheat states that "biotech is a good thing for wheat, that we should be pursuing it and convince companies to invest in it."

He wants to see varieties developed that are stronger in scab resistance and tolerance to various stressors.

"Wheat is one of the last crops to adopt it," he says. "Our board and our growers feel a sense of urgency. That's why they took an aggressive stand on trying to propose a checkoff referendum that would have been a significant increase in the amount of research that we could have invested."

But in December, Minnesota wheat growers voted down the referendum, which proposed an increase in the checkoff rate from a flat 1 cent per bushel to one-half of 1 percent of the net value of the wheat.

"We moved pretty quickly on that last referendum," Torgerson says. "We've got to take some more time and work closely with the growers and develop a program proposal that more growers can support. They're willing to invest more, but it's a matter of how much and how we develop this voting process."

They are moving forward, taking surveys at all of their Small Grains Update meetings to let the growers decide now much of an increase they would support and for what purposes. Torgerson expects another vote next winter.

The next generation

Despite the competition with corn and soybeans, Torgerson foresees a bright future for wheat in Minnesota.

"You think about the wheat industry in Minnesota. When I started 20 years ago, Fergus Falls, Breckenridge and Morris had a lot of wheat. Even farther south had a lot of wheat," he says. "Now it's very small. Every time we go down to those meetings, growers are making tough decisions to plant less wheat, grow more corn and beans."

He recalls the grower board once saying, 'The Red River Valley is meant to grow small grains. We don't have the flexibility to raise anything else,'" he says. "Well, lo and behold, we probably have as many or more soybean acres as wheat acres in northwestern Minnesota. So when people say we'll never raise corn north of (U.S.) Highway 2, you gotta step back and think, 'Things can change.' You just can't take anything for granted anymore."

And the checkoff and the growers associations should be in good hands, too, "because of that younger leadership taking a role and stepping in and being willing to do it," Torgerson says. "A lot of them are using guidance systems on their tractors, guys are getting BlackBerrys and they're using the Internet. That whole information technology, they grew up with it, they know it, and they want things that people aren't delivering yet. We can help there."

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