In the Spotlight

News & Features
Minnesota Farmers Get a Deal
By Martin Kaste
November 5, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Today was "agriculture day" in Governor Ventura's trade mission to Japan. Ventura announced a new export deal for a farmer-owned pork packaging company from western Minnesota, and hailed the contract as the best hope for family farmers who want to preserve their way of life.

THE TOKYO FISH MARKET, six a.m. Laid out on the concrete floor are rows and rows of giant tuna, frozen solid, raising a knee-level fog in the balmy air. The fish are auctioned off for at least $2,000 apiece -- wholesale. Some go for even more; this year's record is $90,000. Prices go so high because this is considered the good stuff -- flown halfway around the world from fisheries off the coast of South Africa; Tokyo restauranteurs are willing to pay a premium to turn it into sushi.
Steve Jenkins, president of Minnesota-based Ellison Meats Company, celebrates new pork-export contract by sampling Minnesota pork -- Japanese style.

This is the kind of thing the Ventura administration has in mind for Minnesota food exporters. Not tuna, of course, but specialty products aimed at gourmet tastes. Minnesota's strong suit has long been bulk commodities -- exports of unprocessed corn, soybeans and meat. But raw commodities are also prone to price fluctuations and fierce competition from low-cost agricultural economies like Brazil. Governor Ventura says there's a better way.
Ventura: Today it is my privilege to announce a new business agreement between a Japanese and a Minnesota company.
In a fancy Tokyo steakhouse on Friday afternoon, Ventura announced a big new export contract for Ellison Meat Company, a farmer-owned pork-packaging company based in Pipestone. Every month, Ellison will sell the Nichimen Corporation almost 40,000 pounds of premium pork center loins and other processed cuts that sell for more than commodity pork usually does. The Governor says the deal is a perfect example of what family farmers can do when, in his words, "they get motivated."
Ventura: They can take the initiative, be aggressive, band together along with Ellison Meats, and then work with the government -- not a dependency -- but working hand in hand with the trade mission over here in Japan to be extremely successful.
Ventura has played up the Ellison export deal on this Japan trip, dropping hints all week that he had a "big announcement" in store for reporters. He says his administration helped "facilitate" the deal, even though the Japanese and U.S. businesses have been talking since before he took office. His agriculture commissioner, Gene Hugoson, says the governor can take some credit for the deal.
Hugoson: Now the fact that Governor Ventura was coming here as part of this trip, I think it's fair to say, probably speeded some things up from taking place, simply because he's a recognizable individual, and it was a case of helping to bring some things together more quickly than they would have otherwise.
MPR: You're saying the deal closed faster because of Ventura?
Hugoson: That's my judgement.
Still, Governor Ventura's enthusiasm for value-added agriculture has its limits. The Minnesota Corn Growers Association has been trying all trip to get him to pay attention to one of THEIR Japanese products -- sports shirts made out of corn starch. Association president Gerry Tumbleson has followed Ventura all the way from Minneapolis, in hopes of getting a few minutes to tell him about the product. On Tuesday afternoon, Tumbleson slipped onto the governor's bus, and came off the bus confident that he'd made a good impression.
Tumbleson: It turned out fantastic, because he understands where we're coming from and we love what he's doing. He understands now that the shirt that I'm wearing is made here in Japan, but it's our corn that made it.
Tumbleson is hoping to get a corn-starch shirt factory built in Minnesota; he was optimistic that the governor would wear the shirt he'd given him as a way of publicizing the product. But two days later, talking to his spokesman, Ventura seemed to have forgotten all about corn-starch shirts.
Ventura: A what?
Wodele: You don't want to wear it? That's fine.
Ventura: I don't even know what it is. What are they talking about it?
And the corn-starch shirt fell victim to the governor's schedule, and perhaps his indifference.