PRAIRIE VOICES: Farmer's statesman

Q. What is the size of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, relative to other departments? What is your budget and employee count? A. We are considered a medium-sized agency with a budget of less than one-half of 1 percent of the state budget...

Gene Hugoson
Gene Hugoson has been Minnesota commissioner of agriculture since 1995. (Photo by Mikkel Pates, Agweek)

Q. What is the size of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, relative to other departments? What is your budget and employee count?

A. We are considered a medium-sized agency with a budget of less than one-half of 1 percent of the state budget.

The department when I started was about 500 people, all across the state. We're down to close to 400 people.

Our budget today is about where we were 10 years ago. The budget is about $70 million, including federal funding and fees. General funds provide about half of that, but some of the money is a pass-through for ethanol plants.

Q. You've served under three very different governors, with different personalities and political styles. What do you think are the chief characteristics these bosses have looked for and then found in you?


A. They had unique personalities but some similarities. I've enjoyed working for each of them.

None of them necessarily had a farm background. They were looking for someone who did have that in order to connect them to what was going on in rural Minnesota.

Gov. Jesse Ventura always said, "I don't know anything about agriculture. I hired you to do the job; now do it."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has made a focused effort to be out in the countryside a lot. He enjoys that sort of thing.

Q. Give us a quick history lesson on your main challenges in each of these administrations.

A. Gov. Arne Carlson had one of the first efforts in some time to promote international agricultural trade.

From agriculture's perspective, international trade is essential. Ninety-five percent of the world's population lives outside our borders.

Ventura was very focused on "common-sense government" -- serve the needs of the people but get rid of some of the requirements that aren't necessary.


Both Ventura and Pawlenty continued the trade focus. Some of those trips with Ventura I'll never forget because of the attention he was able to generate -- not only in this country but other countries.

Pawlenty is very focused on ag as a business.

Q. Besides Asia and Latin America, where are you seeing export opportunities for Minnesota food?

A. We've even seen some opportunities in the Middle East. Dubai is becoming a centralized location for shipping to some of the other countries in that region that are that more politically stable and yet have a higher income and are looking for imported food products.

Q. You have been very concerned about food safety and bioterrorism. How vulnerable is the U.S. and Minnesota to this kind of threat?

A. There were new concerns after Sept. 11 as well as unintentional outbreaks of things -- animal diseases or food contamination that have an impact on agriculture.

We do everything we can to try to stop things from happening, especially using inspection programs for facilities. But beyond that, we have to be able to respond quickly when something does occur.

Measures to protect the distribution system have been going on somewhat quietly and behind-the-scenes but certainly with a vengeance, so to speak. It's a big thing.


Q. Pawlenty is looking for budget cuts. What are you planning so far?

A. Actual cuts will depend on what the budget will be. Part of me that says that if we can get by with what the governor has proposed, then that isn't so bad because some of the legislators might want to take more from us and give to something else.

This is a stressful time for employees and stakeholders. Up to now, I've tried to make cuts by leaving positions open, but the reality now is that we're going to have to start looking at cutting programs.

Q. You are in Marshall, Minn., at a gathering of "local grown" enthusiasts. Many of these folks see themselves in competition with foreign food imports. Meanwhile, you're a champion of U.S. agricultural trade, which depends on two-way trade that involves imports.

How do you square those positions?

A. It's hard for people to understand that in order to export, you've got to import.

But look at what's going on with balance-of-trade issues out there. We import more of almost everything -- cars, electronics, oil -- than we export. But the one thing -- the only thing -- that we export more than import is food.

Q. Most of those at this event are promoters of "organic," "sustainable" and "local" agriculture. Some are quite critical of the larger, more industrial-style farmers.


What's your view?

A. I really get frustrated when I get into a fight between different styles of agriculture. We've got to have everybody, and there's room for everybody.

I may or may not like Wal-Mart and the way they do things, but a lot of people do. Big isn't necessarily bad in everybody's minds.

On the other hand, I think there's room for, and there's growing incentive for people to look at small-scale operations. I regard my job as commissioner to promote all styles of agriculture for consumer taste.

In the end, the consumers rule.

Q. The federal government appears reluctant to research any scientific nutritional differences between "organic" and nonorganic fruits and vegetables. Is the government more afraid of proving or disproving an organic advantage for consumers?

A. Coming right down to it, there's a part of me that says, "What difference does it make?" Because in the minds of consumers, I'm not sure that's always the issue.

The people who want to buy organic would look at such a study and say "Hey, just what we thought," or "Heck, we don't believe it."


The same is true for the other side. Studies can be helpful, but people often feel they're being manipulated or used or that you keep doing a study until you get the answer you want.

Q. That's not the case for food safety, though.

A. No, you still have to rely on science.

Q. You rely on science if you do the science. But if you don't do the science, it leaves it to everyone's imagination whether organic has an advantage, doesn't it?

There is this rhetorical debate over the fears of genetically modified food and the name-calling over elitism.

A. Norman Borlaug (the Nobel-prize-winning agronomist with Minnesota ties) started in a humble background, with very sustainable experience, and yet he was out promoting biotech. He believed that without it, certain parts of the world would starve because they couldn't either get enough food or be able to afford food that would come.

In fact, I think, he was quoted as saying that people who are badmouthing this technology are in fact elitist because they have the money to buy organic kinds of things. Not everyone does.

The reality is there is room for both philosophies.

Opinion by Mikkel Pates
Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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