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LET Agriculture must get its oar in the water

This summer brings election season as legislative candidates criss-cross their districts visiting with voters, riding in parades, and delivering their messages.

This election season will also represent a watershed year as redistricting and population shifts to urban and suburban areas means that rural Minnesota, in general, and agricultural interests in particular, will have less legislative representation.

And with some 12 Minnesota Senate and 31 House members not running for re-election, and as an anticipated 50 new legislative faces in the House alone, interest groups everywhere in Minnesota will be scrambling to establish relationships with policymakers. Throw in a new governor and a whole new crop of departmental commissioners, and we see that agriculture will most definitely need to have its oar in the water in January to ensure that its interests are well-represented.

The reality, however, is that agriculture is in a whole new ball game. In years past, there was sufficient legislative representation for agricultural supporters to be able to drive key initiatives through the Legislature. In 1970, 45 legislators indicated their professions as relating to agriculture.

This year, that number is approximately 22. And due to the time commitments of the job only a very small portion are practicing farmers. Approximately five rural legislative seats will transfer to the Twin Cities suburbs in 2003 as a result of demographic shifts and legislative redistricting.

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The loss of seniority and legislative leadership will represent an equal loss for rural Minnesota.

This is no surprise. The population in Minnesota has grown by approximately 30 percent since 1970, but in 20 of Minnesota's top farming counties the population has decreased by 14 percent. And much of that population now lives in towns and/or regional centers.

So the actual rural population with an agricultural connection is quite small. In fact, 60 percent of all Minnesotans now live in the seven-county metropolitan area.

Does this mean the end of the road for agriculture in Minnesota? No, most definitely not. Agriculture still represents some 16 percent of the Minnesota economy. Minnesota's total sales of agricultural commodities last year represented some $7.52 billion. So agriculture is important. What is changing more than ever before is how agricultural issues will be to be articulated in the public policy arenas in the future.

In the future, agricultural interests will need more than ever before to work with and convince urban constituencies that their respective goals are one and the same.

It will be difficult for agriculture to push through initiatives without urban support. Additionally, agricultural initiatives will need the united support of a solid block of rural legislators and interests to achieve success in the future.

But this isn't the end of the world. Agriculture can make a very good case for the advantages that it brings to all of Minnesota.

The 2003 Minnesota Legislature, like Minnesota itself, will have fewer leaders with agricultural backgrounds and knowledge. Rural Minnesota will need to work with non-agricultural constituencies to develop more partnerships that are good for agriculture and clearly good for all of Minnesota.

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Rural Minnesota can and will prosper in the future. But changing demographics and constituencies will require new strategies to ensure this prosperity.

-- Patrick Plonski is the executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Education Leadership Council at the University of Minnesota.

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