PIERZ, MINN. - Pickup trucks flooded the parking lot on the edge of town.
Days earlier, the new state Senate agriculture chair, Aric Putnam, invited farmers of all stripes — row-croppers, immigrant small shareholders, organic growers — to sound off on priorities for the year ahead. And they did, from a grain indemnity bill and immigration issues to a decline in dairy farmers and manure regulations.
Winter being a dormant time for producers in the cold north, the agriculture industry turned out.
"I didn't know it'd get this many people," acknowledged host farmer Tom Smude.
With meatballs in the slow cooker, coffee pots lit red and Smude, his wife and daughter pulling folding chairs out for overflow seating, farmers gathered in the Smude Sunflower Oil headquarters machine shed last Friday. After introductory remarks, attendees raised their hands and asked for the microphone, one after another.
"It's difficult when the bar keeps changing," said Rick Martens, a farmer from Kanabec County, who aired complaints about liquid manure regulations.
Kelsey Love Zaavedra, who raises chickens and heirloom vegetables on a farm in Chisago County, lamented that farm programs aid the big soy and corn farms.
"The people that have more get more," she said.
And that was just the beginning. This week, Gov. Tim Walz released a $65 billion budget that sets aside $100 million to invest in Minnesota's agriculture sector, propping up grants to spur environmentally friendlier tilling or help young farmers buy land.
The chat in Pierz maintaned a bipartisan spirit.
"I've never met a Democratic or Republican cow," said Putnam, DFL-St. Cloud. In his first term as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Putnam — a college professor — donned a corduroy blazer. "But the kid who drinks that milk doesn't care where it comes from, either."
Dan Glessing, a dairy farmer from outside Waverly and president of the powerful Minnesota Farm Bureau, sat in the front row, concurring with investments in building out broadband or pathways for fresh food in the country.
"Food deserts," Glessing said. "We typically think of them in the inner city."
Increasingly, he said, small town residents travel far to find fresh food.
The business of agriculture in Minnesota — much of it driven by exports — remains strong. From turkey to sugar beets, Minnesota is tops or among leaders on a range of commodities. But farmers big and small, from those supplying farmers markets to barges headed south on the Mississippi River, have all lamented the seesawing cycle between record moisture and squint-or-you'll-miss-it rainfall in the fall over the past few years.
Many also concurred on the need to welcome newcomers to farming, including legalizing driver's licenses for immigrants, who fill vital jobs on farms.
"Immigrants are kind of like farm kids," said Paul Sobocinski, who farms near Wabasso. "They know how to work hard."
One farmer said hearing from immigrant farmers — from Laos, Kenya or Mexico — reminds him of standing in a barn filled with his Scandinavian and German grandfathers.
And Rep. Samantha Yang, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who chairs the agriculture committee in the House, recollected her parents arriving from the "mountains of Laos" as political refugees.
"They knew that farming was a way to start their livelihoods," Yang said.
Afterward, Clint Kathrein, who raises beef cattle north of Little Falls, spoke about his request to require agriculture classes for every Minnesota child, repeating the oft-heard refrain that today's children think bacon comes from Walmart and chocolate milk is dispensed from brown cows.
The crack nevertheless drew laughter from the crowd.
Afterward, farmers stayed and mingled. Planting was still months off. And the coffee was still warm.