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Franken visits farm near Callaway

U.S. Sen. Al Franken takes a taste of sugarbeet straight out of the ground on the farm of Bill and Eric Zurn west of Callaway Thursday afternoon. The beets are not sweet to the tongue, although they yield sugar when processed. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

Though U.S. Sen. Al Franken has long been an advocate for a green economy, and has sponsored at least one ag-related piece of legislation, the fledgling legislator admits his experience with farms and farming is more limited than he would like.

Sen. Franken took a step toward remedying that situation on Thursday, with an unannounced stop at the farm of Bill and Karolyn Zurn in rural Callaway.

"This is my first chance to be on a farm at harvest time," Franken said Thursday during a brief chat with reporters from the local media. "It's obviously real busy here right now, and this is a chance to see how (a farm) operates -- and get an appreciation for all the things that can go wrong."

Things like an unusually cold growing season, followed by a wet harvest; or unexpected equipment breakdowns that can slow an already delayed harvest even further.

"We wanted to get him out on an active production farm so he could see the challenges first-hand," said Bill Zurn, who is the current president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association.

"I've seen it (a farm operation) when it was too wet to plant, and now I've seen it too wet to harvest," Franken said.

Though the recent spell of dry, sunny weather has helped the situation, the Zurns, like many in the area, will lose some of their sugar beets this year because Mother Nature has been so uncooperative.

"We have about 250 acres of sugar beets that won't be harvested this year," said Karolyn Zurn, who like her husband, is active in the MSGA, and also serves on the Fargo-based Northern Crops Council.

The reason, she explained, is that even if the weather does improve, once the ground has frozen the beets lose a significant amount of their sugar content, rendering them unusable.

They do expect, however, to be able to get all their soybeans in this year, she added.

The Zurns raise small grains, corn, soybeans and sugar beets in partnership with their sons, Eric and Nick, in a combined operation that includes several thousand acres of land.

During the beet harvest, Karolyn said, the Zurns employ about 27 people, but their year-round operation includes two full-time and two part-time employees.

The senator spent a little more than an hour at the farm, meeting with the Zurns and their neighbors, touring their facilities and fields, and even taking a brief ride in a combine as it was harvesting soybeans.

"It's a cool machine," Franken said, noting with a chuckle that he had immediately spotted the CD player inside the cab.

But he also took note that this time, the machine appeared to be running "clean," without any mud to muck things up.

"I think it went well," Zurn said, adding that some of the issues he and his neighbors discussed with Franken included renewable fuel standards, cap and trade, and climate change.

"I hope he got his questions answered," Zurn added.

Franken said one of the major concerns he sees is the lack of young people going into the agricultural field.

"The percentage of farmers below 30-35 years old is very low in this state," Franken said. "It's very rare that someone who didn't grow up on a family farm says, 'I'm going to be a farmer.'

"Fortunately, farmers do have kids," he added. But as individual farming operations get larger, and machinery gets bigger, there has been "a thinning out of people who farm."

Franken sees this as more than just an economic, or even a cultural issue -- it's a matter of national security as well.

"We don't want to get to a point where we fall below a critical mass of farmers to raise our food," he explained. "The world is growing in population... it's important to keep increasing productivity."

This is where climate change becomes important, Franken continued, because even slight changes in temperature, precipitation and other normal weather patterns can have a dramatic impact on farm productivity.

Franken said he greatly enjoyed his visit to the Zurns' farm, and thanked them and their neighbors for taking the time to meet with him.

"It's been fun," he added.