It’s a hobby farm today, but Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen, his wife Alana and their two boys still live near where Thom grew up, the land his dad and grandpa farmed. Raising teenage boys who love sports, Petersen makes every attempt to “be there” at home in Pine City for football games, 4-H and school events. And when he stops at the local feed mill, neighbors freely offer opinions to the new commissioner. Thom relishes that small town feel and says it keeps him grounded.
The Petersens are known for their horses and have raised different types over the years. Today, it’s mostly miniature breeds, which they show at county fairs and the Minnesota State Fair. He says the entire family gets involved, “Alana is the professional groomer and my mom, the boys–the rest of us do the showing.”
Minnesota’s Agriculture Commissioner manages a department of 450 employees overseeing food supply, environmental, health and economic aspects of the fifth largest farm state. Yet Petersen, his deputies and other department staff certainly participate in the Great Minnesota Get-Together, including working the all-you-can-drink milk booth as a show of public support for dairy farmers.
And that’s when we caught up with him back in late August. It also happened to be when news broke on closing of the Corn-Plus ethanol plant in Winnebago.
Corn-Plus is another in a growing list of closings throughout the Midwest, triggered by the granting of another round of Small Refinery Exemptions or SREs–waivers to oil refiners from having to blend biofuels that are required under the federal law known as the Renewable Fuel Standard. There’s no mistaking the bitterness in Petersen’s voice when discussing SREs. In the previous two decades of his career, Thom led policy work at Minnesota Farmers Union and renewables are a topic in which he’s well versed and passionate.
Thom took the helm of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture at a tough time. “In 2018, farm income was the lowest in 23 years. Whether it’s dairy farms failing at record pace or corn and soybean farmers impacted by the US-China trade war, SREs knocking biofuels backward, or Mother Nature’s whims, we are highly sensitive to the tons of challenges people are facing every day.”
But Petersen is an optimist, and says, “Opportunities are everywhere!” He rattles off a long list of the good things happening in Minnesota agriculture-ranging from cover crops, soil health initiatives and opportunities for hemp crops to the state’s long history of leadership in biofuels.
“We know the trade war has devastated our China exports. However, we are also seeing interest from potential new markets in Nigeria, Cuba, Peru and Colombia. With biofuels, I had the opportunity to visit Bogota, Columbia. They use ethanol-blended gasoline to reduce air pollution and petroleum use. They’re looking to increase that and we want it to be Minnesota ethanol!”
Renewables have an enthusiastic advocate in Petersen. “I’m excited by the potential for unleaded 88. Although sales increases have recently been negated by SREs‒and that’s terribly frustrating‒long term, consumers will buy-into E15 as the new gasoline blend.”
He adds, “Over the years, I’ve personally witnessed our biofuel plants gaining efficiencies as the industry matures. I see Minnesota-made renewables becoming part of the solutions the Walz Administration will use to maintain our state’s good air quality and to reduce climate change emissions.”
Shortly after our visit with Commissioner Petersen, Minnesota Governor Walz published this op-ed. This followed he and South Dakota Governor Noem writing to President Trump to urge action in support of farmers and biofuel producers. Earlier this week, Governor Walz signed an executive order creating a Governor’s Biofuel Council to promote expanded use of biofuels and greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.