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Farmers help needy and themselves

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota farmers are donating $115,000 worth of pork and cheese to food shelves around the state, taking the money out of funds that generally promote agriculture sales.

In a time when pork and dairy industries are hurting as bad as they ever have, some say the largely symbolic effort could be a turning point.

Soybean, pork and dairy groups joined Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Hunger Solutions Minnesota Friday to announce the cheese and pork donation, which will be handed out at food shelves statewide. About 85,000 pounds of pork and 36,000 pounds of cheese are part of the distribution, which already has begun.

"It's heartwarming to see the agricultural community lending a hand, even as it faces its own economic challenges," Pawlenty said in a Capitol announcement.

The donation comes at a time when food shelves across Minnesota are seeing "a crushing increase in need," said Hunger Solution's Colleen Moriarty.

She said visits to the state's 300 food shelves have jumped 89 percent since 2000.

However, the donation was not just goodwill.

Barb Overlie of Lake Crystal, representing soybean farmers, said crop farmers benefit from increased meat sales because their crops feed livestock. Dairy and pork producers said they need all the sales they can get these days, when both industries have surpluses.

Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson, however, said the help farmers are receiving mostly is symbolic since a relatively small amount of meat and cheese are involved.

For the pork industry, Friday's announcement is the second bit of good news this week. China lifted a ban on the importation of American pork, which it imposed earlier this year amid swine flu fears. However, pork producer Jim Merritt of Elbow Lake warned that the Chinese decision and the food shelf program are not cure-alls.

"Attitude is everything," Merritt said, and morale boosters such as his industry received this week should help farmers.

"We hope this begins sort of a trend," Hugoson added.

Dairy farmer Pat Lunemann of Clarissa said farmers will not see an immediate change. The dairy industry needs many more such "small steps," he said.

"It is going to take a long time to bring us up," he said.

Moriarty said that Friday's donations add about 10 percent to the amount of meat and cheese available at food shelves. The first truckload of cheese by itself will provide food to 100,000 families, but Moriarty did not know how many families will receive food through Friday's donation.

Money being used to buy the pork and cheese normally goes to promote sales of agriculture products, especially to other countries. Those efforts will not stop. Sam Ziegler of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association said that his group still plans to spend $800,000 to promote sales in Mexico, Japan and Korea.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.