MANKATO – The farmers of south-central Minnesota know their land is some of the most productive in the world — a thick band of topsoil pushing up crops that in turn feed hog farms, ethanol plants and soybean-crushing facilities, all serviced by a booming local economy of feed mills, tractor dealerships and seed companies.
The whole enterprise draws little attention beyond farm country, but a local business group hopes to change that on Monday with a bit of marketing magic. At a two-hour “celebration event” in Mankato, it will reveal the region’s new name, which is being kept secret until then, and a website for the area designed to raise its public profile.
“We’ve kind of referred to it as being the Silicon Valley for agriculture,” said Steve Kibble, a partner in a chain of John Deere tractor dealerships and one of the people who helped choose the new name.
The slogan will identify southern Minnesota and northern Iowa as the center for ag business in the nation, a claim that’s been bolstered by a string of good economic news that has local business groups crowing about their success.
Last year, the Mankato area was home to the highest job growth rate (1.3 percent) in Greater Minnesota, according to state data. New construction has torn up Mankato streets, with one downtown block alone seeing three recent building projects valued at $40 million. A $75 million Wal-Mart distribution center for perishable food opened last summer, hiring hundreds. And the greater Mankato region’s gross domestic product of $4.1 billion has grown 5 percent over the past four years.
The new name will refer to a much larger region that encompasses not only Mankato, but all of southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, an area where the 28 leading ag counties reported $11.8 billion in crops and livestock sales in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Some of the latest investments in the region include several at $100 million apiece: Al-Corn Clean Fuel’s expansion in Claremont; Faribault Foods’ expansion in Faribault, and Kraft Foods’ expansion in New Ulm — all in southern Minnesota. The area is already home to two of the world’s largest soybean-processing plants. And Minnesota is the second-largest hog-producing state in the nation, behind Iowa.
For people like Kibble, branding the whole region as some kind of uber-farm just makes sense. The name would promote local companies and also draw fresh investment and talent as it clarifies in the public’s mind that the area is one of the nation’s food centers.
“It started years ago, this talking about it,” Kibble said.
Two years ago, the local chamber of commerce, known as Greater Mankato Growth, budgeted $370,000 for the name project, using $250,000 of the group’s money and the rest from new revenue and external funding. The money allowed it to hire a staff person and consultants to help create the name, among other costs.
A Greater Mankato Growth list of ag businesses with investments, locations, plants or some other stake in the region runs to more than 800, from giant cooperative CHS to family-owned bakeries. Also on the list are businesses owned by Glen Taylor that own egg farms and are building a pork-processing facility in Windom, Minn. (Taylor owns the Star Tribune.)
Whether or not the new name sticks remains to be seen. Jeremy Hildreth, a United Kingdom-based theoretician and practitioner of place branding and author of the book “Brand America,” said it’s ultimately up to the public.
“Nothing wrong with a good slogan, but branding has more to do with what people are saying about you than what you say about yourself,” Hildreth said. “Put differently, you can’t really brand yourself as X; you can only put it out there and hope others brand you as X.”
Mankato’s ag connection
It’s not hard to see the local connection to agriculture in Mankato.
At the new home of the Mankato Children’s Museum, toddlers on a recent afternoon picked toy vegetables from a toy field, pushed wheelbarrows past a 45-foot-long mural showing children working in a vegetable garden, and took turns running a water pump in the outdoor classroom. Two pigs looked on from their pen while other children climbed onto a real tractor.
Evidence of the region’s strong economy, the museum was built last year with $5 million, some of it raised from ag companies such as AgStar Financial Services, Ridley Inc.’s Hubbard Feeds and Crystal Valley Coop. Some of the exhibits in the museum raise important agricultural questions, such as how to feed a world racing toward a population of 9 billion and do it sustainably, said Peter Olson, the museum’s executive director.
The museum had been in existence for several years before it had enough funds to have its own building. When it came time to build, there was no question that ag would play a big role in the new exhibits, said development director Laura Stevens.
“Agriculture was always part of the plan,” she said.
From early childhood education up through the region’s economy, agriculture touches on everything in Mankato, said Richard Davenport, president of Minnesota State University, Mankato.
“What’s driven this whole [naming] initiative is that we recognize we’re the epicenter of ag,” Davenport said. At the university, earlier research helped develop corn for fuel. The school’s future plans may include creating a broad college or institute of agriculture, he said.
Agriculture also helped to sustain the local economy during the recession of several years ago, and the lessons learned during that time sparked some of the early conversations about naming the region, said David Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, which has its offices in Mankato.
Now that the naming movement is launching, he says he hopes it will help farmers by drawing more investment to the area.
“From a farmer’s standpoint, the more agricultural infrastructure that we have close by saves us time, saves us money,” Preisler said.
The region’s economy already has a strong record over the past two decades: A 2011 study by Will Craig and Bruce Schwartau of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota found that Mankato’s retail and service sales grew more than any other Minnesota city from 1990 to 2009 — 123 percent, from $406 million to $904 million. Its sales total in 2009 placed it fourth in the state, nipping at the heels of St. Cloud, Duluth and Rochester.
Minnesota Soybean Growers Association CEO Tom Slunecka said there’s an easier measure of the region’s growth: “Just take a drive through Mankato and take a look at the building that’s going on.”
“There isn’t any reason why this region can’t be as powerful as any ag region in the U.S.,” Slunecka said. “We just need a little bit of focus into the area.”