When he addresses farmer groups on topics ranging from pollinators to legislative priorities, Joe Smentek prefers taking the self-deprecating route. He freely admits there aren’t many agriculture roots in his genealogy, save for a grandfather who was a dairy inspector.
Oh, and he’s an environmental lawyer, too. But “don’t hold that against me,” Smentek asks chuckling farmers. “We’re on the same side.”
“I’m a city kid and an environmental attorney. I joke that’s two strikes against me with farmers,” says the newly minted executive director of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA). “But I’m proof the city and rural can find common ground and work together to find solutions.”
In October, Smentek was elevated to executive director after several years at the helm of MSGA’s public affairs division. He will continue shaping MSGA’s advocacy efforts in St. Paul and Washington, D.C.
“Everywhere I go, I’m told how much people respect Joe,” says MSGA Vice President Jamie Beyer. “He does a really nice job of working with legislators, legislative staff and the state agencies, which shows that he’s in this for the long game.”
Smentek is a rarity in agriculture – he remains the lone known environmental attorney on staff in a U.S. commodity organization.
“It’s such a unique opportunity to help lead MSGA. Time and time again over the past half century, this organization has been the standard bearer for state soybean associations,” Smentek says. “It truly is an honor to represent and work with farmers and walk the halls of the state and federal capitols to promote policies that benefit our producers.”
Smentek is a Inver Grove Heights native who earned a degree in environmental studies from the University of St. Thomas. While completing his law degree at Hamline University, Smentek interned for three years at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. After earning an advanced environmental law degree from Pace University School of Law in White Plains, N.Y., Smentek moved back to Minnesota with his wife, Katie, and became a law clerk and county prosecutor in southern Minnesota. In 2013, a colleague in the law community who was familiar with MSGA informed Smentek the organization was looking to launch an environmental program.
“I think the farmer leaders and (CEO) Tom Slunecka wanted to have someone serve as almost like a translator to talk between the farmers and the environmental groups,” Smentek said. “They were looking for someone who was able to communicate and teach farmers about the environmental laws.”
Although his farming roots were limited, Smentek was interested in serving as a bridge between farmers and environmental groups.
“I knew what the commodity groups did from interning at MDA, and I thought it was a really good model to be an advocate for farmers, and to be an advocate for environmental stewardship,” he says. “You can get a lot more done working with farmers and agriculture than you’re going to accomplish by simply lecturing them.”
Beyer says one of Smentek’s strengths is his ability to cultivate and maintain relationships with both farmers and legislators.
“Sometimes our position in MSGA is a difficult one. Sometimes we’re standing alone and Joe is able to help us have those platforms but not burn bridges at the same time,” says Beyer, who also works closely with Smentek as chair of MSGA’s advocacy action team. “It’s always good to have someone who’s objective and won’t just tell you what you want to hear.”
Advocate for ag
Smentek has been a close follower of Minnesota politics for more than 20 years.
“Public policy and service has always been something I’ve been passionate about,” says Smentek, who currently serves on the Blue Earth County and City of Mankato’s planning commissions. “What happens in the legislature has a real impact on people’s lives.”
In 1999, Smentek worked as a page in the House Ag Committee. In a twist of fate, he happened to be present on the day when then-MSGA Gary Joachim became the first witness to testify on behalf of biodiesel. Two decades later, Smentek continues to advocate and promote homegrown renewable fuels.
“For its environmental benefits alone, I was a big fan of biodiesel even back then,” he says. “Minnesota’s been a huge biodiesel success, and to have been sitting in the background that day when Gary first testified is quite the ‘full-circle’ moment.”
Smentek says his MSGA legislative highlights during his tenure include: a 40 percent buy down for agriculture property taxes for new school buildings, which saves farmers $45 million annually; ensuring the successful transition to B20 (20 percent biodiesel); and clarifying the buffer law.
“Joe’s knowledge of Minnesota politics and the people involved has always been pivotal to MSGA,” says Ag Management Solutions (AMS) CEO Tom Slunecka says. “This new role will help them leverage those relationships.”
But it’s a team effort, Smentek says. MSGA has been successful because of the collaborative nature of the organization.
“Everything MSGA does begins with the farmer leaders. They set the tone and direction; I just help facilitate,” Smentek says. “One thing I’ve heard from legislators is our enhanced social media presence the past few years. Our presence in today’s news media is greater than it’s ever been, and that plays a huge role when you’re promoting policy and building relationships with legislators.”
Smentek said the release of the Water Restoration and Protection Strategies (WRAPS) handbook, a water quality guide to help farmers meet total maximum daily loads of pollutants in Minnesota waters, has been a highlight during his years working with the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC).
“The WRAPS handbook is a good tool for farmers and helps to demystify those processes for farmers and connects them in a more meaningful way,” he says. “Sometimes, talking about water quality can be a bit intimidating, and the WRAPS book helps simplify some of the language.”
Smentek believes MSGA’s future is bright as the organization will continue working relentlessly on behalf of Minnesota’s 27,000 soybean farmers.
“It’s been awesome working with the farmer leaders, and I’m looking forward to where we go from here,” he says.
Family: Wife, Katie; children, Nora, Henry, Molly,
- Grew up an avid fan of skateboarding and punk rock music
- Vice president of the Mankato Symphony Orchestra
- His brother-in-law is “Mad Men” actor Rich Sommer