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Pawlenty outlines ag future for Minnesota

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. - Minnesota faces both great challenges and a promising future in agriculture, Gov. Tim Pawlently said here Saturday night.

One in five jobs in Minnesota comes from agriculture, food processing or related jobs, said Pawlenty, who spoke at the Minnesota Farm Bureau annual convention banquet at the Sheraton Bloomington.

"It's an enormous part of our economy," the Republican governor said. "I don't intend to be a farmer, but I intend to be a very serious student of agriculture, because the opportunity I have is to go out and promote it across this great state."

Not that many Minnesotans have a direct connection to agriculture as they did in past decades, he said, "so every one of us needs to take every opportunity to remind people how important is to our state."

Coming back from a recent trade mission to India and China, Pawlenty said Minnesota agriculture can play a huge role in providing food. India alone has 1.3 billion people, with 55 percent under age 25.

"They are growing a middle class with an exploding demand for consumer products and food," Pawlenty said. "Agriculture and food processing is an enormous opportunity for Minnesota."

He also said the future for agriculture in Minnesota depends on a healthy livestock environment, allowing producers to see unfettered regulation from local and state governments as long as they abide by established environmental standards.

"We cannot be a healthy, forward-looking agricultural state unless we include within that we are a welcoming state for livestock agriculture," he said. For the first time in a long time, Minnesota is now adding dairy cows and that's good, he said.

"We're seeing investment in modernization and in capital equipment," he said. "One of our biggest concerns is that we have to make sure in Minnesota that we have the political and legal environment that doesn't punish livestock agriculture producers who reasonably and responsibly honor that."

It should make no difference if an operation is large, medium or small as long as it is competitive, he said. "And that means we make sure that we allow modernization where appropriate and that we make sure we have zoning and land use decisions ... that have some checks and balances but aren't just political."

Saying a strong rural economy is a cornerstone to a strong state economy, Pawlenty also plugged his rural development agenda for the 2008 legislative session, which includes micro-loans and investment tax credits for rural small businesses.

Pawlenty also noted the session will focus on transportation funding, but didn't discuss his plan for funding. This fall, after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Pawlenty said he would consider a 5-cent a gallon gas tax increase, but since then hasn't repeated that pledge.

Instead, he told Minnesota Farm Bureau members - who depend on roads and bridges to move their commodities - to watch that legislators don't put too much money into metro public transit.

"Keep in mind that 95 percent of the people of Minnesota get around on roads and bridges," he said. "We will put more money into roads and bridges, but let's make sure it gets into roads and bridges and not an unfair or disproportionate amount is put into transit which not that many people use."

Transit "is not the main thing," he said, drawing applause from the audience.

Agriculture faces challenges from the weather - with floods and drought hitting opposite ends of the state at the same time - as well as rising input costs such as fuel, pesticides and chemicals. Even property taxes, he added.

"We've had some high profile consumer confidence issues with recalls of products and meat and some produce as well across the country," he said.

And, with ethanol becoming a big business in Minnesota, critics of ethanol are emerging to cloud the waters. Anti-agriculture activists are "spouting off," which is not helpful, he said.

But a national movement to renewable fuels puts Minnesota in front, Pawlenty said. The 2007 Legislature helped with legislation requiring utilities to get 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025.

That will open up opportunities for agriculture in biomass, biofuels and wind.

"We've led the nation in per capita consumption of renewable fuels," he said. Minnesota requires that 10 percent of the gasoline sold in the state is ethanol, and Pawlenty said the state will seek to move the mandate to 20 percent.