If you’ve eaten a Kemp’s ice cream sandwich recently, or packed some Reichel Dippin’ Stix in your child’s lunch, there’s a good chance both products were made in Rochester.
Although the health care industry dominates Olmsted County’s economy, agriculture still plays an important economic role in the area. A new billboard from the Olmsted County Farm Bureau puts that message front and center to thousands of people every day.
The billboard, which can be seen by drivers heading north on U.S. 52 near 55th Street, shows three professionally-dressed individuals with the words “Olmsted County Farmers, Growing Food & Local Jobs.”
To learn more about the billboard, the county’s farm bureau and Olmsted County agriculture, you don’t have to look much further than the Pagel family.
Ron Pagel is president of the Olmsted County Farm Bureau, his wife, Lori, teaches agriculture at Kasson-Mantorville High School, and their daughter-in-law, Chandra, heads the promotion and education committee for the bureau.
“Part of our simple message is that Olmsted County is not just about medical facilities,” said Ron Pagel. “It’s a big player, but there’s a lot of acres of corn and soybeans, and gallons milk coming through town. So let’s try to make that aware to consumers.”
Lori Pagel said her husband first got involved with the county farm bureau when he was “in the womb.” His father was instrumental in the bureau since Ron was a young child.
The Olmsted County Farm Bureau is one of the 78 bureaus in the state that make up the Minnesota Farm Bureau. Each bureau has its own goals and impetus for what their role is, but most of them are focused on addressing issues that agricultural producers face today.
“As farmers, we’re busy enough on the farm day-to-day, so we can’t be in St. Paul or Washington to address things as they come forward legislatively,” said Ron.
Instead, the bureau has lobbyists to be present for political negotiations that impact farms and farmers. Any position or stand taken by the state bureau has to come from a county bureau, said Pagel, which makes it a grassroots structure that prevents knee-jerk reactions on agricultural issues.
But the bureau also has another important objective, which is to educate county residents on what their industry entails and impacts.
“Our other big thing is educating the consumer,” said Pagel. “Because more and more of the consuming public has no relation to a farmer, and they don’t know where their food comes from.”
Pagel said that about a year ago, the bureau members had a meeting to discuss how they could teach urban Olmsted County residents about the many agricultural businesses that operate around them. About the same time, Lori Pagel started one of her classes on a project to discover all the agricultural-related industries in the county. The tally was 13, including Seneca, Marigold, AMPI, Kerry Group and Reichel Foods, to name a few.
Once she opened up the topic with her students, Lori said they began to take interest in how many recognizable names were on the list.
“In general, I think they were very proud to learn about all the things that are being produced around the area,” said Pagel of her students. “It not only educated them on what was going on around them, but what to look for — because they’re going to be the consumers of tomorrow, and probably not the ones milking the cows.”
The bureau had considered doing a billboard in the past, Ron Pagel said, but realized it wasn’t the most economical form of outreach. But when they secured some grant money, they went for it. They knew the billboard message had to be simple, because cars would be whizzing past it at 60 mph, so they chose the simple theme of growing food and adding jobs.
Chandra Pagel, who focuses mostly on outreach with kids, said the billboard represents a good opportunity to educate adults. She believes the disconnect in consumers understanding agriculture’s impact comes partly from farmers rarely broadcasting their livelihood to the public.
“If you don’t show (the consumers) what’s going on, they’re going to come up with their own assumptions,” she said.