Second in Command at USDA is Minnesota Farm Boy at Heart

Second in Command at USDA is Minnesota Farm Boy at Heart
Steve Censky may be second in command at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but he’s still a Minnesota farm boy at heart.
Censky, deputy secretary of the USDA, grew up on a family farm near Jackson. He attended Jackson public schools and was in 4-H and FFA.
He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as deputy agriculture secretary in October 2017 after being nominated for the post by President Donald Trump last summer.
As deputy secretary, Censky has three primary responsibilities. He serves as chief executive officer of the agriculture department, overseeing the USDA’s 100,000 employees, $120 billion budget and offices in every county in the nation. He works closely with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to represent the department in Washington, D.C., and across the globe. And he is a key player in shaping ag policy, including the farm bill.
For Censky, the appointment as deputy agriculture secretary last year marked a homecoming of sorts. He worked at the USDA in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, helping to craft the 1990 farm bill and eventually serving as administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service, where he was involved in global trade negotiations and running the nation’s export programs. Between his two assignments at the USDA, he served as CEO of the American Soybean Association for 21 years.
During his Senate confirmation hearings last September, Censky outlined his three top goals as deputy secretary. He said they remain the same today.
The first is to expand market opportunities for farmers and ranchers.
“This includes both domestic and international markets,” he said, something more important now than ever in light of what he termed “unsettled times in trade.”
The second is to help farmers and ranchers become more resilient in the face of changing weather and climate. Key to accomplishing this goal, Cenksy said, is education.
“We need more ag research, to be carried out by our state land-grant universities and extension services, to help farmers prepare for what lies ahead,” he said.
And third is to close what he terms the “digital divide” — the gap in availability of broadband Internet between urban businesses and rural agribusinesses.
“Broadband Internet is necessary and transformative,” Censky said, citing access as critical not only to precision ag technology, but also to rural businesses, rural schools and rural medicine.
Despite much work ahead, Censky is quick to say the future of agriculture is bright.
“I am very optimistic about the future of agriculture,” he said. “It’s getting more high-tech and more sophisticated, and the technology we’re seeing today is going to continue to change it.”
Aside from that, he said, the laws of supply and demand paint a rosy picture for American agriculture.
“We have 7.6 billion people on Earth,” he said. “The United Nations predicts that by 2030, there will be 8.6 billion people and, by 2050, 10 billion people. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. We will have to produce so much more food and do so with less energy and less water. That paints a very bright future for agriculture — especially U.S. agriculture, which is the most efficient in the world.”
Accordingly, Cenksy urges young people — especially those back home in the corner of the world in which he grew up — to pursue a career in agriculture.
“Careers in agriculture today go beyond traditional ag,” he said. “Yes, there are opportunities to go back to the farm, which is great, but there are also opportunities in marketing, veterinary medicine, food and nutrition, biology, agricultural engineering, conservation — even venture capital. More and more venture capital firms are developing into ag-only firms. And there’s more things like that coming. It is an exciting time to pursue a career in agriculture.”
To that end, he encourages young people interested in doing so to take advantage of resources available to them right in their backyards.
“Be involved in 4-H and FFA, Scouts and your church,” he said. “Gain that leadership experience. My involvement in 4-H and FFA was so very critical. It was truly horizon-expanding for me. I am very thankful I had these experiences, and I encourage young people to do the same.”
 

Family Hold First Annual Pipestone Summer Spectacular

Family Hold First Annual Pipestone Summer Spectacular
A new event provides an opportunity for area youth to show cattle.
Started by Craig and Angie Raatz, of rural Jasper, and their daughter, Brandi Schaap, and son-in-law, Andrew Schaap, of rural Pipestone, the first annual Pipestone Summer Spectacular beef show was held June 2 at the Pipestone County Fairgrounds. As of midweek the week before the event, Angie Raatz and Brandi Schaap said they expected around 50 entries in the show.
“That’s a nice size show for the first year,” Raatz said.
The event is a youth jackpot beef show for anyone 21 and under. It is a single-weekend show at which the winners earn cash prizes.
Raatz said the Summer Spectacular provides an opportunity for people who show at the county fair, state fair or national shows to gain more experience for themselves and their animals.
“This is a really good kick off to get your animal out and get them used to showing and push yourself to train them early,” she said. “Usually they need a show under their belt to get them a little more comfortable in the ring.”
Cash prizes will be awarded for the top participants in a variety of categories based on breed and age as well as for showmanship and market animals. The prizes are made possible thanks to donations from local sponsors. Schaap said there were around 45-to-50 sponsors for the Summer Spectacular.
“The show wouldn’t be possible without all of our great local support,” Raatz said. “We really appreciate them.”
Raatz and Schaap said the family wanted to have a beef show in Pipestone to provide area youth with an opportunity to learn through the experience of showing cattle. Raatz said her children grew up showing cattle locally with 4-H and around the Midwest at junior national Simmental shows.
“We think it’s important because our kids grew up in 4-H, Craig and I were both in 4-H, and we think there’s a lot  of life skills you learn by showing and exhibiting,” Raatz said. “Whether you get the purple ribbon in the ring or you end up last, there’s a lot to be learned on both ends.”
Raatz said the family started talking about hosting a show when the county built the new show arena at the fairgrounds 10 years ago. Schaap said the new beef and dairy barn built at the fairgrounds last year also makes it a nice venue for such an event.
“The key is kind of facilities,” Raatz said. “You’ve got to have people who want to do it, but you also have to have really good facilities because people need a wash rack and electricity in order to make these cattle look the way they are shown today. They dress the cattle to the nines. They look nice.”
The family decided this was the year to begin the Pipestone Summer Spectacular after another show in southeast Minnesota that typically draws people from the area was not scheduled this year, leaving the date open.
“The hard part usually is trying to find a weekend that’s not already taken,” Raatz said.
Craig and Angie Raatz have raised cattle for over 20 years and currently have around 200 head of Simmental cattle. Schaaps raise Simmental and Charolais cattle. Schaap said they just started raising cattle and don’t have many yet, but they plan to grow their operation. Schaap is also the Pipestone County 4-H Coordinator.
 

For Weets, West Coast Meets Midwest

For Weets, West Coast Meets Midwest
From the beaches of Oregon to the corn fields of Minnesota, Julia Weets has lived — and loved — both.
Sixteen years ago, she moved to Minnesota with no farming in her background; but she was ready to learn what the country life was like.
Weets lives in a former Mennonite church five miles northeast of Jackson. She and her husband, Adam, along with their two children, Katelyn, 16, and Josiah, 3, love living in the country, and they love the small-town feel of Jackson. While they don’t farm the land around their acreage, they do have two dogs, three cats, laying hens, broiler chickens and plans to raise calves in the future.
Weets works in the agriculture field, in the soybean certification and quality department at Pioneer in Jackson through the harvest and packaging season. Before planting season, she packages product to meet the growers’ needs.
Husband Adam also works in agriculture. He has managed a small sow farm operation for the past two-and-a-half years. He grew up in Alpha, baling hay and picking rocks throughout his upbringing. He also helps friends and family during planting and harvest season.
The family is active in their church, First Baptist Church of Jackson, where Adam is the commander of AWANA, a youth Bible program, and Julia leads a group of second- through fifth-graders. Adam is also a first responder and has been a member of the Alpha Fire Department for the last 14 years.
Weets says she still misses the beaches she grew up on, but said she wouldn’t trade her life now for that. She loves the small-town life, and she loves Jackson County.
 

Fish and Hydroponic Produce Form Basis of New Aquaponics Business

Corey Van Stelten and John De  Valk had a shared interest in aquaponics that led them to start their own aquaponics business, CR Produce in Edgerton.
Aquaponics combines aquaculture, or the raising of aquatic animals, with hydroponics, or growing plants in water.
“Aquaponics is a process of combining natural resources to produce high quality foods efficiently,” De  Valk said.
In aquaponics, the fish nitrate-rich waste fertilizes the plants. The plants, or produce, then act as filters for the water, which cycles back to the fish again, De  Valk explained.
Although Van Stelten and De  Valk had an interest in aquaponics, they didn’t have first-hand experience. De  Valk attended an aquaponics class at Nelson and Pade Aquaponics in Montello, Wis. They have a consultant arrangement with Nelson and Pade so they are able to ask questions when something arises.
Given the growing environment, pesticides and herbicides are not needed and they don’t use any chemical fertilizers.
“We can’t claim organic because the first requirement for organic is food grown in soil, but it’s as natural as you can get,” De  Valk said.
To be able to grow year round in Minnesota, a series of red and blue light panels shine on the plants for 16 hours a day.
“It’s the 21st of June every day in here,” Van Stelten said.
The business partners started working on the building over a year ago. Once the building was up, De  Valk started preparing the beds for the plant life in July and August. By October, there was flowing water in the building and in December, they added the tilapia fish.
They chose tilapia fish because they are fast growing and easily farm raised.
De  Valk spends his days caring for the fish and plants. He starts by feeding the fish early in the morning, checks the water conditions, tests the pH levels, plants new items, inspects the plants, pollinates the plants and harvests.
“Once we get up to the point of being up to capacity John will probably harvest and plant every day,” Van Stelten said.
They planted about 350 seed varieties and have 1,000 tilapia fish. De  Valk and Van Stelten hope to have their first round of fresh produce by the beginning of May.
“Our seeds are heirloom seeds,” De  Valk said.
Some of those seed varieties include several types of lettuce and kale, herbs like basil and oregano, the natural sweetener stevia and peppers.
“It’s a pilot effort to find out what the community wants,” De  Valk said.
The duo hopes to eventually sell the produce and fish at the farmers market and potentially a grocery store. Van Stelten doesn’t want to find a steady market before there is a steady supply of produce and fresh fish.
“We want to keep everything as local as we can and then it’s fresh for everybody around here that wants it,” Van Stelten said.