Minnesota Soybean Business


March-April 2019

Thom Petersen may feel like the new kid on the block when he gets off the fifth floor of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture building, but it’s safe to say his face was a familiar one to most everyone there.

The newly appointed MDA Commissioner spent much of his last 17 years representing Minnesota farmers in St. Paul and at the Capitol building. Today, his mission remains much the same, but now with an office just down the street.

“I hadn’t planned on doing this. I waited until the last day to put my name in for this position,” says the former Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU) director of government relations. “I loved my job at Farmers Union.”

So why the move?

“Really it came down to a couple things,” Petersen says. “First, I would hear people say, ‘I hope Thom doesn’t leave (MFU) because we could never replace him.’ I’ve always been a believer that everyone is replaceable, no matter how great you are. That got me thinking. Secondly, I thought to myself, what a great opportunity. I didn’t want to regret not trying. If I got it, great. If I didn’t, I still had a job that I loved.”

Petersen’s road to becoming the current agriculture commissioner under Gov. Tim Walz started in his hometown of Excelsior, Minn., just outside the Twin Cities. Unlike most working within agriculture, he did not initially grow up on a farm but rather gained interest through his relatives and being involved in his local 4-H program.

“My grandparents, as well as my aunts and uncles, farmed,” Petersen says. “So I joined 4-H when I was young and got into the horse program. Turns out, I was halfway decent at riding horses.”

Petersen’s parents were interested in going back to the farm so they ended up buying a farm, which is where he stayed until ultimately owning his own farm.

When he went to buy his own farm, he received a loan from his parents, but he also sold part of his cherished sports cards collection for $5,000, including three Wayne Gretzky rookie cards, two Michael Jordan rookie cards and a couple of Mickey Mantle baseball cards.

“I broke horses, boarded horses, did riding lessons, but mostly trained and showed horses,” Petersen says. “Also as part of our farming operation, we grew corn and soybeans, raised cattle, goats, hay, just a little bit of everything. Today, we only have a hobby farm, but I am so fortunate my parents had invested in me and I had the opportunity to farm.”

While farming full time, he became active in MFU and took an interest in ag policy, crediting his parents for getting him interested in politics.

“As I got more active in Farmers Union, I started going to the Capitol, conventions and lobby days,” he says. “So when a job became available at Farmers Union as the government director, I applied and got it. That was almost 17 years ago.”

Petersen now lives near Pine City, Minn., with his wife Alana and their two sons, Dylan and Waylon.

Ready for a reset

Petersen says it’s no secret relations between the previous administration and agriculture was challenged at times, but he says his new role brings an opportunity to rebuild and bridge the gap between farmers, farm groups and the administration.

“I felt when taking this position that this was a chance to start rebuilding some relationships,” he says.

When asked on his approach, his response was decisive.

“We need to be open, bring people to the table as early as we can in the process, be willing to see other people’s point of view and really, just make an effort to work together,” he says.

Petersen says Gov. Walz has not only challenged him to meet with people outside the I-494 beltway once a week, but to also reset relationships that agriculture might have with other groups.

“Resetting relationships goes beyond just farmers and commodity groups, but it also includes agriculture’s relationship with groups like the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Revenue,” Petersen says. “If you take the buffer law or the vetoed tax bill that the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association really pushed for, these don’t come directly from the Department of Agriculture, but yet agriculture has a huge role in it.”

MSGA Executive Director Joe Smentek says Petersen’s previous endeavors will allow him to do just that.

“Thom has lived all sides of the triangle. From farmer, to farm organization, to ag commissioner, he knows when it’s important to have certain stakeholders at the table,” Smentek says. “His knowledge and experience is what Minnesota agriculture needs to help lead us forward.”

The game plan

Before Petersen stepped foot in his St. Paul-based office for the first time, he already knew what he wanted to accomplish as commissioner.

“I want to make farmer’s lives better and easier,” Petersen says, reminiscing on ‘thank you’ letters he received from farmers throughout his years at MFU. “So however we can get there, that’s what we’ll do.”

Petersen cited soybean prices, trade, the dairy industry, Palmer amaranth, mental health and African swine fever as a few of his initial focus areas.

“I appreciate the lead MSGA has taken on so many of these issues, especially rural mental health,” Petersen says. “It’s not an easy thing to talk about.”

Another focus area that Petersen hopes to tackle is the number of farmers currently farming and how that’ll change in the future.

“I want to keep our farmers farming, but also make it possible for others to join,” he says. “The age of farmers is concerning. It only continues to rise. I ask the question, ‘Who will be farming the land in the next 20 years?’”

Petersen says his previous position at MFU prepared him to attack these priorities and his new role head on.

“Coming from a general farm organization prepares you pretty well,” he says. “In my role, I know farmers in all 87 counties. From Cook County to Rock County, know someone. I’ve been to them all. I’ve seen farms in each county, so I’m real familiar with agriculture across the state.”

“I’ve also worked on just about every issue affecting agriculture, says Petersen, who was also a registered lobbyist during his 17 years at MFU. “From Palmer amaranth to biodiesel to water quality, I’ve been through the fights. I’ve seen the successes. I also know so many of the policy makers and those that work here (MDA). Because of this, it was an easier transition.”

Petersen says his former role has also taught him the importance of working across party lines.

“It didn’t matter who was carrying the bill – Democrat or Republican. We (MFU) just wanted the best deal possible. That is something I will carry with me.”

But with every game plan comes potential roadblocks and Petersen says he can already name one.

“I want to do everything all at once. And in this role, it doesn’t work like that.”

MSGA Vice President Jamie Beyer, who farms near Wheaton, Minn., says having Petersen as ag commissioner is the fresh start Minnesota agriculture needs.

“MSGA has worked closely with Th om throughout the years,” she says. “On so many issues, we’ve fought the same fight. We’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the Capitol hallway. We’ve testified back-to-back. He understands our priorities and concerns and we are eager to continue working with Thom in this new role.”

Fun Facts

  • Growing up, Thom was homeschooled and received his GED at 16 years old
  • Thom received his Associate’s degree from Normandale Community College and studied at both the University of Minnesota and University of Georgia
  • Petersen’s family initially raised appaloosa horses but transitioned to raising miniature horses, which he currently has today
  • Thom has shown horses at the Minnesota State Fair for roughly 35 years, while also showing at 7-10 county fairs per year
  • Thom worked on the presidential campaigns of Walter Mondale and Richard Gephardt
  • Both of Thom’s children, Dylan and Waylon, were named after musicians
  • Thom’s wife has worked for four members of Congress
  • Thom enjoys collecting sports memorabilia; currently owning 300 Bobbleheads


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