The past few months have been tough, with COVID-19 introducing a new normal of stay-at-home orders and virtual meetings, and more recently, the governor’s executive order requiring people in Minnesota to wear face masks in indoor businesses and public indoor spaces.
Through it all, agricultural workers have kept showing up, and a GreenSeam event held Aug. 4 at Franklin Rogers Field in Mankato celebrated those workers, agriculture and its contributions to everyday life.
Once in a while you'll need a doctor, a lawyer or a preacher, but three times a day, every day, everybody needs a farmer, says Gary Koch, GreenSeam's board chairman and vice president and general counsel at Christensen Farms.
GreenSeam, which was birthed by Greater Mankato Growth in 2013 to recognize and build upon the region's agricultural assets, hosted the event on the home field of the Mankato Moon Dogs.
The event, "Ag Makes the World Go ‘Round in 2020," was billed as a celebration of agriculture, a chance to climb out of basements and leave home offices behind to gather with other professionals in agriculture — in person, safely six-feet apart, with masks — to talk not only about the challenges presented by the pandemic, but also how agriculture has and continues to overcome those challenges.
Speakers took turns behind a microphone that was sanitized between presenters with Lysol wipes from the canister, a centerpiece on the head table. More than 10 tents from GreenSeam sponsors filled the plaza.
Wayne Kahler, who started Kahler Automation 40 years ago in Fairmont, shared his story of walking into the storm that is COVID-19. The governor's stay-at-home order went into effect at his business’ peak season and he sent 50 of his 75 employees to work from home. He was amazed at how well business continued as employees worked from home offices. However, the business isn't as agile as when employees are co-located, Kahler says.
In a typical year, Kahler Automation would send one or two individuals to a customer site to commission new fertilizer and herbicide measuring and blending systems. The team would change based upon customer needs. This year, the same technicians were paired for visits to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, Kahler says.
As Aug. 4, none of Kahler's employees had tested positive for COVID-19. There have been challenges, like the team that was turned away from a hotel because they had traveled from another state, but he's looking ahead.
"I do know everyone at Kahler Automation will be glad when they're all back in the office," says Kahler, a GreenSeam board member.
Andrea Vaubel, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and a non-voting member of the GreenSeam board, says she was thrilled to be at the event. It was her first out-of-house event in she couldn't remember how long, as she says COVID-19 has messed with her sense of time.
"COVID has and is really tough on everyone," she says, but agriculture and agribusiness have innovated and pivoted quickly.
The glorious summer day was also an opportunity for GreenSeam to update its supporters on its $2.8 million fundraising campaign. The campaign launched 18 months ago and was set to enter a new phase this spring when COVID-19 struck and ground the campaign to a halt.
Janet Kubat WilletteGreenSeam hosted a celebration of agriculture Aug. 4 at Franklin Rogers Field, the home of the Mankato MoonDogs. Chad Surprenant, GreenSeam board vice chair, speaks while GreenSeam director, Sam Ziegler, board member Wayne Kahler and board chair Gary Koch look on.
So far, $1.3 million has been raised — including a $75,000 state investment — to fund the organization's efforts to promote the region as the place to be if you're involved in production agriculture. The GreenSeam region is the "Silicon Valley of Ag," its supporters say.
A feasibility study, which included interviews with 75 influencers, guided the board as it set its $2.8 million goal, said David Krause, past chairman of the GreenSeam board and Pioneer Bank CEO. The $2.8 million is designed to fund GreenSeam operations for five years.
The August event was a chance to reboot the campaign by showing supporters what GreenSeam is doing and entice potential donors to support the organization that supports agriculture and agribusiness across not only southcentral Minnesota, but also into western and northwestern Minnesota and northern Iowa.
The organization is focused on retaining and growing agribusinesses already located in the region, attracting new businesses to the region, attracting, retaining and developing a workforce and growing awareness of the region and its brand, Krause says. Their five-year goals include increasing agricultural industry output by 20%; generating $1 billion in new agribusiness capital investment; establishing six new ag specific degree and certificate programs at the region's two- and four-year colleges; increasing the number of students enrolled in ag-related classes, certificate and degree programs; and positively impacting ag employment by 10%.
Krause highlighted successes including Mankato Area Public Schools hiring a full-time ag teacher for the first time in 25 years, record attendance at its Rural Forum in December and Minnesota State University-Mankato adding an agribusiness and food innovation minor.
COVID-19 has spotlighted agriculture, Krause says, with meat packing plant closures, supply chain disruptions and trade discussions dominating national news during earlier days of the pandemic.
"It shows how significant agriculture is and how important agriculture is to all of us," he says.
Kubat Willette is a Farm Progress digital content creator.