See more of the story

For roughly 130 years, Minnesota's state flag bore an image of a farmer. The next flag definitely won't.

Instead, a glittering North Star, a flourishing waterway or perhaps a green polygon nodding to a pine tree could grace the next flag, which a commission is racing toward selecting before an end-of-year deadline.

Not everyone is pleased.

"I've been very open with the commission saying that I prefer the current flag," said Rep. Bjorn Olson, a Fairmont Republican and corn and soybean farmer north of the Iowa border who sits as a non-voting member on the commission.

But even Olson, who plans to bring a bill during the next legislative session to open up approval of the flag to voters, understands the new design needs to be inclusive.

"You can't just say Minnesota's agriculture. You can't just say Minnesota's mining," Olson said. "So that's been my number one thing: What are we if we are just one thing?"

Changing industry

On the original flag, adopted in 1893 using an iteration of the state seal that featured a farmer pushing a plow, the Minnesota farmer stood tall and straight-backed.

That flag's design — particularly the Native man on horseback riding, seemingly, off into the sunset — has long drawn criticism for its overt embrace of westward expansion and the cataclysmic impact such settlement had on the Indigenous population living in Minnesota in the 19th century.

"I've heard a little bit [of grumbling] that agriculture is not part of [the flag design], but at the same time, I can see the reason for the redesign because [the current flag] is demeaning to the Native American community," said Gary Wertish, president of Minnesota Farmers Union.

But the loss of the farmer may sting for another reason: Minnesota's cultural identity in the 19th century was far more ingrained in, well, grain, than it is today.

Minneapolis was Mill City. The world's bread flowed from wheat harvested in fields of the northland.

Anders Mayland, site manager of the Oliver Kelley Farm, a historical farm outside Elk River, said the 1850s agriculture census shows roughly 5,000 acres of so-called "improved" farm land in the boundaries of modern-day Minnesota. By 1880, that number had grown to over 7 million acres.

"There's an exponential change in the amount of land used explicitly for farming [during this time]," Mayland said.

Today, agriculture represents only 1.67% of the state's GDP, said Su Ye, chief economist for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. In an email, she confirmed agriculture had a "much bigger" share in the 19th century, as farming — along with milling, logging and the fur trade — propelled the state's early economy.

"In the 1850s and '60s, you're going to have three or four farmers supporting the one person in the area of the city," Olson said. "Now we're well under [that ratio]."

The loss of agricultural symbolism in Minnesota's flag comes at a ripe time in the development of precision agriculture and climate-smart practices. In August at Farmfest outside Morgan, Minn., an implement dealer displayed the last so-called "moldboard plow" to come off John Deere's assembly line.

Moreover, Minnesota's commodities have changed. During a discussion about a potential flag featuring a wheat chaff during the November meeting, Olson pointed out that corn and soybeans — not wheat — are king crops in Minnesota's farming backyard.

It was also noted that wild rice has been the state's official grain since 1977, when then-state Sen. Collin Peterson sponsored a bill to make it so.

"Wheat is not the official crop of Minnesota. It's wild rice," said commission member Aaron Wittnebel, a representative of the Ojibwe community on the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. "That's in statute."

Some flag finalists nod to ag

Minnesota's agricultural scene is still the envy of most states, ranking fourth in exports and corn, second in pork and first in turkeys and sugar beets.

And this titan of industry still earns glancing reference in some of the half-dozen flag contestants still under consideration — that is, if you read the liner notes.

One flag — a star inside a snowflake over a blue and green backdrop — invokes "barn quilts," according to its designer. Another calls out "the important role agriculture has played in our history" through a green stripe.

But to some rural constituents in southwestern Minnesota who have bent the ear of the commission's vice chair, Anita Gaul, the loss of the flag's clear nod to farming represents a symbolic shift toward a rural-urban divide in Minnesota.

"It's not losing the plow that's concerning to them," said Gaul, who grew up on a farm and now teaches history at a community college in Worthington. "I think what I'm really hearing from rural Minnesotans is they don't want to be overlooked or ignored."

State law requires the new flag not represent any one group. In many ways, no one will be totally happy when they see the representation.

Gaul said one community member told her, "Just don't let them put the Mall of America on it."