Soybean Business: A new vision

This story was first featured in the September-October 2017 issue of Soybean Business. Click here to view the digital version.

MSGA’s newest president hopes to strengthen organization through efficiency 

Michael Petefish didn’t always want to be a farmer when he grew up.

“I have a pretty non-typical path to ag,” the newly minted MSGA president said during the final day of Farmfest, where he conducted a round of media interviews and shared the stage with Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) Commissioner Dave Frederickson to announce Gov. Mark Dayton’s support for the B20 mandate. “I didn’t grow up on a farm, but it’s definitely in my blood.”

Petefish’s family roots in farming date back as far he can trace his genealogy. His grandfather, Harold, farmed in Iowa until he moved to Dodge County, Minn., in 1950. Michael’s parents divorced when he was young; he lived in Afton, Minn., and graduated from Stillwater High School. During the summers, however, he helped out his dad, Richard, on the 4,500-acre family farm in Claremont, Minn.

“When I was old enough to drive, I would go down on the weekends to work for my dad for extra money,” says Petefish, 32, who lives in Claremont with his wife, Jessica. “But I didn’t think I was going to make a career out of farming.”

Petefish attended the University of Minnesota and earned bachelor degrees in plant biology and plant genetics. He then decided to pursue a master’s at the University of Florida.

“I thought for a while that maybe farming wasn’t for me,” he says. “When I was 18, I thought farming was the way to go, but then I went back and forth. I wasn’t sure.”

After three years in Florida, Petefish (pronounced pet-ĕ-fish– “one in a hundred say my name right,” he jokes) returned home to Dodge County. He started plying the family trade in earnest. He worked for his dad on the farm for three years before Mike bought into a partnership with his father. A neighbor then asked him to join the Dodge County Corn and Soybean Growers.

At first Petefish saw his county organization as more a social club than an active ag organization, but he started becoming more engaged with politics. One of his employees would keep the radio tuned to a political talk station, and Petefish began taking a greater interest in public policy.

“I read and learned and listened a lot,” says Petefish, who enjoys hunting, fishing and traveling in his spare time. “Politics affects every single thing you do in life. I used to think politics didn’t matter, but then I realized that politics is one of the only things that does matter because there’s not a single thing in life that’s not somehow affected by laws and regulations. As I became more aware of that, it became a natural progression. Now I want to have a say and help inform people.”

Bruce Schmoll, a former MSGA president and fellow Dodge County board member, suggested Petefish enroll as a DuPont Young Leader. Petefish completed the prestigious leadership program and became an MSGA at-large director.

“He must’ve seen something worthwhile in me,” Petefish says, chuckling. “I genuinely care about MSGA and the issues we face as farmers, as business owners. It’s a privilege to advocate on behalf of Minnesota soybean farmers.”

Petefish is the face of a younger technology-savvy breed of Minnesota farmers, a generation that he believes views their occupation as more of a business than a lifestyle. It’s also safe to assume he’s the first MSGA president to cite EDM (electronic dance music) as his favorite musical genre.

“As the farming demographic shrinks, more and more farmers are basically CEOs of their operations,” says Petefish, who grows corn and soybeans, and employs a roster of full-time and seasonal workers. “I run my farm like a business.”

Petefish hopes to attract more members and directors by streamlining MSGA, bringing efficiency to the organization. Time is money, he says. Let’s get to work.

“I want to get the organization clicking at a level where someone could feel like they could get involved without draining too much of their time away from their operation,” Petefish says. “It’s not about personal gain or the title. I just want to get more done in less time.”

Petefish says one of his primary goals is ensuring MSGA helps usher in a smooth transition to B20 in May 2018.

“B20 is huge for Minnesota soybean growers and Minnesota’s economy,” Petefish says. “It’s a win-win for everybody and worth the fight.”

Finding common ground with organizations – both in and outside of agriculture – will be another primary focus during Petefish’s tenure as president.

“I’d like to see us partner with organizations we haven’t normally worked with in the past,” he says. “We can work with, say, environmental groups, even if we don’t agree on every issue. … Let’s find the issues we do agree on and work together to advance our cause.”

Petefish hopes to steer MSGA into a more proactive, rather than reactive, direction.

“I’d like to see us champion positive policy versus reacting to negative policy,” Petefish says. “Having a bolder approach to legislation will be one of my top priorities.”

The future is bright with MSGA, Petefish pronounces.

“There’s a lot of history and tradition in this organization, and I have a really unique opportunity to bring my vision to MSGA,” Petefish. “Maybe my success can’t be measured in one year – maybe that’s years down the line – but I hope to put my stamp on MSGA.”