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Old Blueprint for New Way to Progress

May 14, 2014 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

Two farm broadcasting executives who have witnessed and chronicled change in the Red River Valley region of Minnesota, North Dakota and Manitoba are now nudging people, especially new residents to the region, to look forward by borrowing entrepreneurial practices from the past.

Les Kletke, from Altona, MB, and John Vasichek, from Grand Forks, N.D., have published On Golden Plain, a book that looks at movers and shakers who influenced a generation of agriculturalists, marketers, inventors and public policy leaders while the sciences and markets for our agricultural resources changed greatly.

Each chapter is a profile of someone who made a difference for agriculture and for the region where they live and work. What they all have in common, besides geography, is that they all took risks to achieve what they thought should be done, said Vasichek, a retired marketing executive with the Red River Farm Network.

That is the message the authors hope will be conveyed to younger generations and newer residents of the two states and their neighbors in Manitoba, said Kletke, a long-time Canadian farm broadcaster and former provincial extension service agent at Altona, which is about 80 miles north of Grand Forks in southern Manitoba.

Among profiled people who helped build the agricultural industries through public polices are former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland, of Roseau; former National Association of Wheat Growers president Don Loeslie, of Warren, and from across the river in North Dakota are prominent leaders of the National Farmers Union (Roger Johnson) and American Farm Bureau Federation (Eric Aasmundstad).

Most profiled people in the book, however, were successful entrepreneurs, cooperative developers or business service providers who seized the opportunity to improve their own fortunes while helping others.

New people are now taking resources at hand and finding new uses, new business models and new markets, Kletke said, “just like the people we profiled.”

In the Twin Cities and several cities and regions around Minnesota, this spurt of new energy is coming from new Minnesotans that include Hmong and Vietnamese, Hispanic and Latino newcomers from Mexico and Central America, and immigrants and refugees from Somalia, Sudan and other areas of Africa. Across the border in Manitoba, Kletke said an entrepreneurial boost is coming from various places around the world and especially from the Philippines.

This makes the agricultural leaders profiled in the book important for two reasons. First, they tell us how our state and regional economies got to where they are today through constant innovation and course adjustments. And second, the risk taking, entrepreneurship and innovation profiled will be just as essential in the hands of new generations of leaders going forward.

Those are broader reasons that make the book valuable for the region. Still, it is primarily an agriculture book and will most likely find a spot on shelves of farmers, farm suppliers and marketers.

Kletke and Vasichek are setting up bookstore and distribution channels now, starting with Heritage Arts Gallery at Michigan, N.D. It can also be ordered ($25) at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

A couple of Minnesota enterprises and their entrepreneurial founders have special relevance for people looking ahead.

Chad and Pam Olsen of Hendricks, Minn., are farmers by choice, not by inheritance. Chad grew up on a hobby farm while his father ran a lumberyard. That they’ve become good size farmers now comes from renting most of their land from other farmers or from the third-and-fourth generation family members who have emotional attachments to family farms even though they’ve moved on to other professions and avocations.

The humorous chapter on the Olsens recalls how this changing structure of agriculture opened opportunities for them. They entered agriculture and have since built a large custom combining (harvesting) business doing the harvesting for others who aren’t on site farm operators or who don’t want the expense of modern combines.

When they got married, Pam recalled, Chad had eight combines and promised to not have more than 10. Some compromises were made. Olsen Custom Farms now has 70 combines located around the country and harvests 700,000 acres for other farmers each year.

“I should have known when he drove a combine to church for our wedding,” she said.

A particular living example of entrepreneurship, however, is Jay Schuler, of Breckenridge. He, with partners, started several specialty seed companies, Giant Snacks food company, and was instrumental in developing sunflowers as a viable oilseed and snack food segment of our regional economy.

An entrepreneur, he told the authors, is someone who will jump at an idea when there is 85 percent certainty of the outcome. Most people want 100 percent assurances. By then, Schuler said, the opportunity will have passed.

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