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National Agriculture Day highlights county industry

Editors note: Agriculture Day is recognized throughout the country on March 8

Could this be a 'Golden Age' for agriculture?

Some experts believe so.

As Bev Durgan, Dean of the University of Minnesota Extension, stated in a recent press release, much has changed over the last few decades. Forty years ago, talk about agriculture focused on "the farm problem" and what to do with surpluses.

"Today, those surpluses are gone," she wrote. "And some are suggesting this might be the Golden Age of Agriculture."

Today, "We are living in a time of record land prices and good profits from agriculture," according to Durgan. "Agriculture employs 14 percent of the U.S. workforce and agricultural graduates have multiple job offers."

There is also an increased recognition of the importance of farmers and food. Polls show that 95 percent of Americans believe it is important to grow food domestically, and more than 80 percent of Minnesotans say they have a positive view of agriculture in the state.

In Otter Tail County, agriculture is a major industry. One need only look out the car window to see evidence of that - a person can't drive more than a few miles without seeing farmland. In fact, 75 percent of the county's land is agricultural, thanks to its nearly 3,300 farms (according to the latest Census of Agriculture, taken in 2007).

Otter Tail County's website lists dairy farming, cash crops, livestock and poultry operations as the main agricultural enterprises.

"It's a large county, but if it's not covered with water, it's covered with agricultural uses," said Phil Glogoza, a crop educator with the University of Minnesota Extension out of the Moorhead regional office. "It's a fairly significant income factor for the county."

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) ranks Otter Tail County as number one in the state in beef cow production, number two in all cattle, and number five in both milk production and poultry.

Glogoza said that's in addition to the general strength of the area as a field crop and small grains producer. He said the county is in a transition period right now, "where we still have a good amount of wheat, but in recent years there's been a shift toward soybeans" - a phenomenon happening both here and across Minnesota.

When looking at the whole picture, said Glogoza, "We're very big on agriculture. And we're very high on the outlook for agriculture. ... From exports to domestic use, prices have been good."

He added that the economical strength of agriculture is "especially beneficial when other parts of the economy are faltering," such as during the recent recession.

"It's nice to see that during a general downturn we have some of these sectors like agriculture where things are fairly strong and positive," he said.

Growing career prospects are also an indicator of agriculture's strength as an industry - as well as its likelihood for growth in the future.

Nationwide, agriculture is now the third highest job-producing sector, behind only health care and information technology. And agricultural career options are expanding as farms get more specialized, high-tech and diverse.

"I believe this could be the 'Golden Age of Agriculture,'" said Glogoza. "Especially in terms of job forecasts and as a career track to explore."

Glogoza said the dynamics of agriculture are changing: "We still have the traditional farmer and family farm, but there's a lot of specialization going on, even at the enterprise level. Even within the family, people are specializing, from the marketing to the production side."

He added that new biotechnologies and evolutionary equipment expansions have changed the direction of agriculture over the last 20 years. Remote sensing, GPS, and "all the things that are being utilized in agriculture to improve its efficiency" take a high level of expertise, he said. This means information technology graduates, among other 'non-ag' grads, could easily cross over into agriculture jobs.

"Food production is a technology business today," Durgan wrote. "One reason new agricultural graduates are in such high demand is they have science smarts and technology skills. They will learn that skill development does not stop at graduation."

Currently, agriculture is one of the top four industries for employment in Otter Tail County, according to Greg Wagner, an economic development planner with West Central Initiative out of Fergus Falls.

Wagner said it's difficult to pinpoint just how significant agriculture is to the local economy, since so many other industries (such as manufacturing) depend on it, as well, and since data on agriculture is collected differently than it is for other industries.

"We all recognize the importance that agriculture plays on not just this region's economy, but the state and nation's economy as well, and how it impacts other jobs in other industry sectors," wrote Wagner in an email to the newspaper. "However, it is hard to quantify that real impact since different organizations don't uniformly track agriculture numbers in that same way, or at all, as they compare to other industries."

Still, while things are looking good for agriculture right now, Durgan said it's not without its challenges.

One of those is consumer education. Most people are three, four or five generations away from a family connection to a farm or farmer, she wrote, and telling the story of how food is produced and what farmers do "has never been more important than it is today." points out that, "agriculture provides almost everything we east, use and wear on a daily basis. But too few people truly understand this contribution."