MORTON, MINN. - Gov. Tim Pawlenty took a break from his emerging national campaign schedule Thursday to talk ethanol, agriculture and crack Ole and Lena jokes to farmers under a big top at Farmfest.

With a down-home message tailored to his rural audience, Pawlenty extolled the economic benefits of Minnesota-produced alternative energy and decried the expense of government-funded social welfare programs.

"We've got to build more transmission lines," Pawlenty said, referring to transmitting electric power from wind turbines, whose towers are popping up in western Minnesota. "We got to get that stuff built."

He defended corn-based ethanol, a fuel promoted and subsidized by the state. While it has been criticized elsewhere for driving up food prices, corn ethanol production has plenty of support in rural areas.

"It's not perfect," Pawlenty acknowledged, and said more research should be done on other sources of ethanol.

His remarks pleased Ken Wiese, a 75-year-old corn and bean farmer from Comfrey.

"If ethanol fell flat, our economy would be in the cellar," Wiese said after Pawlenty's appearance.

Pawlenty delivered his remarks to about 300 farmers crowded inside the main event tent at FarmFest, a four-day annual gathering held in a sprawling field about 5 miles from Morton.

Pawlenty stuck mostly to local issues befitting the casual setting, mixing easily with the crowd, rattling off Ole and Lena jokes for a live radio audience and autographing souvenir cups.

But he struck a more serious tone in blasting the growing cost of subsidized health care and social services, linking it to government's ability to help farmers.

Noting that government programs have helped nurture wind and ethanol businesses in rural Minnesota, Pawlenty told the farmers that the rising cost of public health care and social welfare programs come at the expense of funding programs that could help the farm economy.

"Minnesota is in danger of becoming one big social service and welfare state," he told the crowd.

He reminded the crowd of his opposition to raising taxes, saying Minnesota is "already at the outer edge" in taxation and insurance.

His tough talk on social welfare spending was countered afterward by Jim Mulder, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties, who told the crowd that the elderly -- not young families -- account for the biggest growth in such spending in rural counties.

"We have to be careful about the generalization of who we are providing that for," Mulder said. He added that spending on mental health therapy also could alleviate crime in rural areas.

While agricultural concerns dominated, Pawlenty did touch on the hottest national issue: health care legislation in the U.S. House. "That is a bad bill for our country and agriculture," he said, adding that the cost would be too high for a nation already in debt.

Pawlenty has been frequently mentioned as a 2012 presidential candidate for a Republican Party looking for new blood, and has presented himself as a contender in appearances before party activists around the country.

An announcer in the Farmfest tent made a brief reference to the governor's presidential prospects, but the crowd didn't pursue it. Pawlenty quipped that he tells people he's running for president -- of an Eagan hockey club.

Patrick Doyle • 651-222-1210