Petersen is the first of Walz administration up for confirmation

State departments of agriculture in neighboring states differ in leadership.

Minnesota Farmers Union Government Relations Director Thom Petersen was picked to head the Minnesota Department of Agriculture Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in Hastings. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Policy on Feb. 27 unanimously recommended Thom Petersen, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, for confirmation to the full Senate.

"I'm honored and very humbled to be the first commissioner to go through a confirmation hearing in this administration," said Petersen. "And honored to have unanimous vote as well, and to have letters of support from so many organizations."

Petersen had letters of support from the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, Minnesota Corn Growers Association, Minnesota Farmers Union, Minnesota Pork Producers Association and AgriGrowth.

After the hearing, Petersen said he was "excited and looking forward to the whole senate confirmation at some point in the near future." No date has been set for Petersen's confirmation hearing before the Senate.

Before the confirmation process began, Petersen had concerns over the entire process after seeing Brad Pfaff, secretary of agriculture for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection be denied of his confirmation by the Wisconsin Senate for the first time in decades.


The firing of Pfaff had Petersen starting to question his own fate. But winning over state legislators in Minnesota, with a DFL-controlled House and Republican Senate, turned out to be a painless endeavor.

Pfaff's undoing

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers named Pfaff as secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in 2018, in a pick that was applauded by more conventional as well as progressive ag groups in the state.

But the clash between a Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic administration ultimately led to Pfaff's one-sided forced departure.

Conflict reached a climax after Pfaff released a statement in the summer 2019 about the Legislature's GOP-controlled budget committee, who he said was abandoning the state's farmers after the release of funding was delayed to help farmers battling mental health issues.

Republicans accused Pfaff of politicizing the issue, and in November the state Senate voted 19-14 to fire Pfaff, with all Republicans voting against his confirmation and all Democrats voting in favor.

With the vacancy in ag leadership left looming in Wisconsin, Petersen said he's heard from some groups in the state that have voiced insecurities over state department, and its capacity to meet critical needs of farmers.

"Agriculture in general, and it being such a tough time and past year," said Petersen. "Then to have that happen to your director, and nothing decided for how it will be handled."

Responsibilities in the department

Krista Knigge, administrator of the Division of Agricultural Development in the badger state, said her team's job is the same with an interim secretary as it was before that — help grow Wisconsin agriculture.


She said the department knows that farmers are hurting, especially the more than 7,000 dairies in the state. Wisconsin is home to more than 65,000 farms, said Knigge.

Once Pfaff was removed from his position, Knigge's duties with the agency changed. But she said they did not change in a way that caused disorder or imbalance.

"We have processes in place to make sure that operations continue when we don't have a secretary in place," said Knigge. "How that's changed my role is I'm just getting more involved and helping out where there's a need and to share some of the workload."

Working in a division focused around growing the state's ag economy, which Knigge said contributes over $100 billion a year, she's found herself stepping into more a spokesperson role for the agency without a confirmed leader.

"I've been doing some more speaking engagements and helping out with interviews that the secretary's office might traditionally take," said Knigge. "But otherwise my role is pretty much the same."

Second time interim

Going from deputy ag secretary to head secretary is never an easy transition, said Randy Romanski, interim secretary of ag for DATCP. It's the second time that Romanski has done it.

The first time was while serving as deputy secretary for Rod Nilsestuen, who he called his mentor and friend. Nilsestuen drowned in Lake Superior in 2010, at the age of 62.

"Being part of that transition was difficult because of losing Rod," said Romanski, who served as interim secretary until he was eventually appointed to secretary by Doyle.


But Romanski said the experience taught him how dedicated the DATCP staff was and he was able to educate himself on the agency's programs.

He said the current transition is much different, but that the agency is always prepared for any change.

"Our staff has been through transitions before — a lot of different transitions," said Romanski. "They transition from one administration to the next, and so they just keep doing their jobs to the best of their ability."

Romanski said he's not sure what the long-term solution will be for naming a new secretary, but he is sure the governor is working through it now.

"I'll do the best I can as interim secretary, and keep doing the good work our agency does," he said. "That's what I'm focused on right now."

Romanski said that how Pfaff's removal occurred, with him publicly challenging the Legislature, hasn't changed the way the agency communicates publicly.

"I think we've stayed consistent with our message, which is DATCP sees itself as a resource to farmers and citizens of Wisconsin," said Romanski.

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