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Christopher Vondracek

Agriculture Reporter | Agriculture
Phone: 612-673-4811

Christopher Vondracek covers agriculture for the Star Tribune.

Vondracek has reported on prairie dog lawsuits in the Black Hills to federal education policy in Washington D.C. A native of Faribault County, Minnesota, he's a graduate of the University of South Dakota, holds an MFA from Hamline University, and taught college English for many years in Winona and St. Paul. His debut collection of poetry, Rattlesnake Summer, was published in 2020, and his memoir, Dancing with Welk, in 2022. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Carrie, and daughter, Rosie.
Recent content from Christopher Vondracek
A ship carrying grain waited in port in Odessa, Ukraine.

Cargill to stop handling Russian grains for export as war in Ukraine continues

Citing "export-related challenges," the Minnesota-based grain giant said it will stop elevating Russian grain in July.
Scott Helmes

Architect, artist, so much more: Scott Helmes, 77, is remembered as 'incredibly talented'

He could spot beauty in the ordinary.
Folks gathered to talk and get a look at the equipment offerings at Ziegler Ag Equipment, Farmfest 2021.

Minnesota debates right-to-repair bills as tractor makers, farm groups seek amends

In January, the Farm Bureau struck a deal with John Deere to open their computer codes to independent mechanics to fix farm machinery. Some farmers say more is needed.
Woodbury police arrest four linked to multiple carjackings

Woodbury police arrest four linked to multiple carjackings

Three adults and one juvenile were booked Saturday evening into Washington County jail.
A 2010 file photo of a freshly killed chicken during processing.

State agency alleges eight minors illegally employed by Minnesota meatpacker, seeks court injunction

Minnesota's Department of Labor and Industry has requested a judge in Watonwan County issue a temporary restraining order against Tony Downs Food Co., alleging the food processor is employing minors.
Corn could become chemicals as the state spends $100 million on a new facility.

A Minnesota nonprofit proposes facility to make chemicals from corn, sugar beets, even dandelions

A new bill in St. Paul would spend $100 million on an innovation facility for BioMADE, a Minnesota-based nonprofit looking to generate bioindustrial manufacturing.
Marcia Endres photographed alongside a research cow back on April 10, 2018, at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus

Minnesota had set a price floor for dairy products. A new bill could remove it

Backers said repealing a decades-old law would aid farmers by allowing retailers to position products as so-called "loss leaders."
CHS HQ in Inver Grove Heights. CHS Inc. is is the country’s top-grossing agriculture co-op.

CHS fined $531,000 for safety failures in death of Nebraska grain worker

OSHA cited the Inver Grove Heights-based farmers cooperative for inadequate "safety gear."
Global Processing, a grain buyer with facilities in Hope, Minn., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October.

Indemnity fund, meant to protect Minnesota farmers when grain elevators go bust, clears hurdle

The Minnesota Senate ag committee approved a safety net for farmers whose grain payments go unpaid by a bankrupt elevator.
GOP Rep. Michelle Fischbach spoke to a supporter before the congressional forum at Farmfest in Morgan, Minn., on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.

Minnesota's western flank loses voice on key ag panel as farm bill heats up

Western Minnesota possesses the state's largest ag lands and for decades has been represented on the House ag committee — until this year.
Mr. Peanut starred in a Super Bowl commercial this year. Planters’ parent company Hormel says that while the company didn’t see an immediate finan

Hormel off to disappointing financial start to 2023, with sluggish snack-brand Planters

The Minnesota-based company, which owns household brands Hormel and Planters, reported $3 billion in revenue with sales down 2% for the first quarter.
Young workers exit JBS pork plant after an overnight cleaning shift in Worthington, Minn., on Oct. 18, 2022. Their employer, a sanitation company, was

Federal government investigates more than 600 child labor cases across nation

U.S. officials announced new multi-agency efforts to root out child labor, building on last year's slaughterhouse investigation, which included several cases in Minnesota.
Joanne Knight, left, the acting chief financial officer at Cargill, was named the permanent CFO. Philippa Purser was named head of strategy and global

Cargill names two women to lead finance, global strategy on leadership team

Joanne Knight — acting CFO and General Mills veteran — will permanently step into her executive team role after Jamie Miller's departure.
South Dakota Republican Rep. Bethany Soye spoke at a news conference in January at the State Capitol in Pierre, S.D.

Sanford-Fairview health merger exposes Minn.-S.D. cultural divide

A merger between Fairview and Sioux Falls-based Sanford would be based in South Dakota. Health leaders say the conservative state's laws wouldn't affect abortion or care for transgender youth. It's been a tough sell.
Pam Benike, left, and her son Isaiah work their Prairie Hallow Farms booth at the Mill City Farmers Market in Minneapolis on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023.

How some Minnesota farmers grow green produce in frozen winter months

"This is how we grow vegetables up here" in the winter, says one Rochester farmer.
The PSSI hiring business is located on the lower level of a building just steps from the Worthington High School football field.

Labor Department: Over 100 children hired to clean meatpacking plants, including in Minnesota

Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services paid $1.5 million to the Labor Department on Thursday in illegal child labor fines.
New Cargill CEO Inc. Brian Sikes: “We link people together. And we do it around the world.”

New Cargill CEO on role in global food chain: 'Food can't be weaponized'

Brian Sikes took the helm at America's largest private company on Jan. 1, at a moment in time full of volatility and international upheaval.
A farmer stands to address legislative agriculture leaders at the headquarters of Smude Sunflower Oil in Pierz, Minn., on Jan. 20.

Minnesota farmers meet over meatballs, talk legislation

An informal gathering billed as a "listening session" by organizers found legislative agriculture leaders seated in a Pierz machine shop, hearing directly from farmers from across the state.
The terminal in Houston — previously owned by Cargill — will now operate under TEMCO, a grain venture owned jointly by Cargill and CHS.

Cargill, CHS adding Houston terminal to joint venture TEMCO for grain shipments

Minnesota agribusinesses say expansion to the Gulf of Mexico will bring more stability to grain shipping.
Wheat grows in a field in Tribune, Kan.

Government wants tractors back from Minnesota organic farmer accused of fraud

A judge returned a farmer's tractors in order to harvest crops last fall — even though the man stands accused of fraud. Now, his attorney says the tractors should stay on his farm.
Dustin Vanasse, owner of Minneapolis-based Bare Honey, showed the honey made by the bees he keeps at the Connexus Energy solar array in Ramsey in Octo

New honeybee vaccine gets little buzz from Minnesota bee community

The USDA has approved the first-ever vaccine for honeybees. But Minnesota's beekeepers say their troubles are bigger.
An irrigation unit parked on a tilled field in Dakota County in May 2022.

Study: Topsoil 'being eroded 100 times faster than it's forming'

An eye-popping new report argues that soil erosion in the Midwest — including from samples in southwestern Minnesota — is happening at a far faster clip than previously estimated.
Nancy Musser embraces her daughter-in-law, Julia Musser, as they search for Nancy’s son, George Musser, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2022 in Stillwater, Minn. G

After daylong search, missing Stillwater man's body found

George Musser had last been seen at a downtown Stillwater bar early Saturday morning.
Clarion, the latest wine grape bred by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s horticulture facility, debuted earlier this month.

U's new grape can withstand cold winters — though maybe not Minnesota cold

Clarion, the latest grape bred by the University of Minnesota's nurseries, packs previous grape Itasca's flavor profile but with tidier growth.
Grain elevators are closing at the rate of one every 18 months in Minnesota. This file photo shows workers moving soybeans into a temporary storage bu

State fund would help Minnesota grain elevators, which are closing at an alarming rate for farmers

After bankruptcies by grain buyers, the push is on for a state-backed indemnity fund.
A driver for Kwik Trip filled his tanker truck with ethanol from the Al-Corn ethanol plant in Claremont, Minn., one of the state’s longest-running e

E15 ethanol blend might soon be available year-round

Critics say the movement to frame ethanol as good for the planet is "greenwashing." But political momentum has grown, citing rural economies and domestic energy.
The PSSI hiring business is located on the lower level of a building just steps from the Worthington High School football field.

Meatpacking cleaning firm to lay off Worthington employees after JBS ends its contract

The Labor Department has alleged that PSSI has hired minors to clean slaughterhouses, which is considered hazardous work.
Gov. Tim Walz, right, and DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said the Minnesota formula remains tested and proven: attract talent with the state’s highly

Gov. Tim Walz 'asking our team to be bold' to attract workers to Minnesota

Facing demographic challenges, the Minnesota governor talked about ways to draw new residents.
U.S. Labor Department investigators determined that Packers Sanitation Services Inc. hired underage workers to clean slaughterhouses, including in Wor

Child-labor violations at meatpacking plants in Minnesota stand out for their brazenness

Over the last five years, Minnesota officials issued dozens of child-labor citations. But the violations in Worthington and Marshall are called "shocking."
The PSSI hiring business is on the lower level of a building just steps from the Worthington High School football field.

PSSI accepts more oversight to end child labor suit at Minnesota meatpacking plants

The agreement ends a public court battle, but the Department of Labor continues to investigate.
An employee worked atop a vat of industrial ethanol at Al-Corn Clean Fuel ethanol plant in Claremont, Minn.

EPA proposes more biofuel blending in nation's gasoline

Minnesota's farm groups cheered the proposed rule that would set volumes for how much biofuel must be mixed with petroleum until 2025.
Neva, 8, and Roen Lundgren, 10, pulled the tree their grandfather Doug Berglund harvested on Nov. 26 at Happy Land Tree Farms in Sandstone, Minn. 

Shoppers flock to Christmas tree farms: 'Is this one too chonky?'

Minnesota tree farmers say irrigation and timely rain aided their seasonal crop. But prices may be up.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz during an interview Wednesday in St. Paul expressed openness to the proposed merger of Fairview Health Services and Sanford He

Walz signals openness to revived Sanford-Fairview merger

The two health systems tried to combine in 2013, but the deal fell apart after resistance from Minnesota political leaders.
A family makes their way on a sidewalk in the downtown area in Worthington, Minn., earlier this month.

In meatpacking towns, some say child labor is 'not a secret'

Labor Department attorneys say PSSI, a Wisconsin-based cleaning service, illegally employed six underage staff at JBS Pork in Worthington and Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall.
Gov. Tim Walz checks out a turkey presented by the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022 in St. Paul. The Minnesota Turkey Gr

Turkey given seat at table, if not exactly a pardon, in Minnesota

Gov. Tim Walz and industry players appeared at the Capitol with the turkey on a table. Thursday is the turkey industry's big day — and no other state grows more birds than Minnesota.
Button accordionist Martin McHugh, an anchor of the Twin Cities traditional Irish music scene and an Irish immigrant from County Roscommon, died in Oc

Martin McHugh, Minnesota's elder statesman of Irish traditional music, dies at 93

An immigrant from County Roscommon, Ireland, McHugh enlivened trad sessions — from living rooms to pubs — for decades in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The rooftop deck at Stella’s Fish Cafe in Uptown features both upper and lower seating — and skyline views.

Uptown favorite Stella's Fish Cafe to close

Without citing a reason for closure, a longstanding Minneapolis rooftop hotspot says Nov. 26 is its last day.
Worthington residents reeled over news of an investigation that PSSI used illegal child labor to clean the JBS plant.

Fake IDs hid ages of underage slaughterhouse workers, court papers say

Wisconsin-based PSSI, an industry-leading sanitation service for meatpacking plants, has a history of safety violations and was recently bought by a major private equity firm.
Grain hauler Josh Peine of Peine Trucking in Hampton dumps his corn load Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, at Interstate Mills in Randolph, MN.](DAVID JOLES/START

Minnesota is a top corn producer. But how much of it is eaten by humans?

The state's plentiful corn harvest is destined for much more than grocery stores and summer barbecues.
Production of oil at the CHS soybean processing site in Mankato, Minn., on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. Inver Grove Heights-based CHS Inc., is one of the

CHS sees 'bullish' demand in soybean oil, citing renewable diesel

A West Coast hungry for renewable diesel to combat climate change has driven a surge in Minnesota's backyard for oil extracted from crushed soybeans.
Congressman Brad Finstad, a southern Minnesota Republican, is interviewed by a local TV reporter at his election night party at the Courtyard by Marri

Incumbent Brad Finstad bests ex-food CEO Jeff Ettinger in southern Minnesota congressional race

The First District campaign saw talk of inflation and abortion in a district that has historically flipped between Republican and Democratic control.
Turkeys on a Minnesota farm in April 2012. Inflation and bird flu put enormous pressure of the state’s poultry farmers, many of whom are still raw o

Farmers still reeling from bird flu as Thanksgiving approaches

Supplies are expected to be adequate, but new cases of the flu have put enormous pressure on poultry producers, who worry that outbreaks may be the new normal.
A farmer in a combine harvested corn on Oct. 23, 2022, in a field east of Alma, Wis.

Farmers are pulling the last corn from Minnesota's dry fields

With warm, dry conditions, Minnesota's corn growers are 10 days ahead of schedule in reaping season's yields.
Democratic candidate Jeff Ettinger, left, and Republican Rep. Brad Finstad shake hands after a forum on Oct. 17 at Owatonna Country Club.

Talk of farm country in Minnesota's First District congressional race takes back seat to national topics

GOP incumbent Brad Finstad and retired Hormel CEO Jeff Ettinger are facing off for the second time in three months.
Charlie Rohwer pointed out black rot on a broccoli head harvested at the University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, Minn

Researchers fight broccoli blight in Minnesota's fields

Black rot has been harming many of the state's broccoli crops as farmers face erratic weather patterns.
Feral pigs on a ranch near Mertzon, Texas, on Feb. 18, 2009.

Furry hogs still at large in Faribault County after DNR hunted down others

It's not the first time possibly feral hogs — which have proven a menace in many Southern states and Canada — have bred in the wild in Minnesota.
A tractor idles in a field in rural Dakota County, Minnesota, during harvest on Monday, October 10, 2022.

Southern Minnesota struck (again) by intense drought

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack designates nine Minnesota counties — all in the farm-rich, rural west and south — as disaster areas for this summer's drought conditions.
A flowering hemp plant at Carpe Diem’s 80-acre farm in Elk River, Minn., ready for harvest in September.

Minnesota hemp farmers hit brakes as the state's industry opens up

Farmers, previously willing to experiment with hemp, say the risk of their plants "going hot" beyond the legal THC limit may not be worth it. Many want better seed genetics and improved end-market infrastructure in Minnesota.
Barges at the Winona port on the Mississippi River on Tuesday.

Barge traffic bottlenecks and low water on Mississippi River loom during Minnesota's crop harvest

With major barge jams farther south along the Mississippi, the nation's premier inland waterway for agriculture exports has proven costlier for grain shippers and farmers farther north.
Paul Rutherford, vice president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, harvested beets in his fields near Euclid, Minn., in September

As Minnesota's wheat harvest concludes, sugar beet crop hits prime time

Wheat farmers had a soggy start to the season but report good bushels-per-acre harvested.
Robert Shimek, an extension staffer with the White Earth Tribal and Community College, toured a 1-acre field planted in the college’s backyard.

Seeds of a food revolution grow on the White Earth Indian Reservation

A survey of the tribal college's population revealed some of the highest rates of food insecurity among students in the nation. So the college's extension director created a farm.
Members of the People’s Lobby inside the Minnesota State Capitol in 1937.

What happened during the takeover of the Minnesota State Capitol in 1937?

For 15 hours in April 1937, the Minnesota Senate Chamber was under the rule of protesters who'd been encouraged by the governor.
Archive photo of volunteer Janessa Rosenfield of Hopkins packed apples into boxes at Second Harvest Heartland in Brooklyn Park on Friday, May 22, 2020

Struggling food pantries look to congressional farm bill for assistance

Rural Minnesota food banks are searching for fresh food as inflation and supply-side challenges squeeze donations.
CHS Inc., the country’s top-grossing agriculture co-op, is headquartered in Inver Grove Heights. In 2018, the company self-reported concerns about a

SEC settles with CHS over employee's manipulation of rail contracts

The agency says the Inver Grove Heights-based agriculture co-op has put in place safeguards to protect the accuracy of company bookkeeping.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter talked to neighbor Janis Jaja, who brought her two grandchildren with her to a news conference at the scene of Sunday’s

Victims in triple homicide on St. Paul's East Side are identified

Police arrived about 4:30 p.m. Sunday to find two people with gunshot wounds waiting for them outside a two-story home on the 900 block of Case Avenue E. Three more victims were inside the home, and medics pronounced them dead at the scene.
Gary Turnquist watched as his great-granddaughter Kaia, 5, worked on a seed art of her own after viewing his prize-winning entry of Jesus Christ in th

Lindstrom man wanted crop art honoring 'The Shining.' Then his family showed up.

The Lindstrom artist's work may have planted a seed in the next generation.
The Corn Plus ethanol plant on May 22, 2015, in Winnebago, Minn.

California's ban on gas-powered cars worries Minnesota's corn and soybean farmers

By 2035, new sales of gas-fueled engines will be banned in California, making some farmers who grow crops for the ethanol industry anxious.
Mary Jane Schroder of Jordan took pictures of the large pumpkins in the Agriculture Horticulture Building Monday,. August 29, 2022, at The Minnesota S

Inside the 'magical' world of competitive vegetable growing at the Minnesota State Fair

The Minnesota State Fair draws submissions of largest pumpkin, cabbage, potato and squash. Sure, sunshine, soil and good seeds help, but some experiment with lesser-known tricks.
Farmland for sale in Silver Lake, Minn., along Hwy. 7 on July 12, 2021.

'That's still the dream': Buying up Minnesota farmland

With land prices hitting record levels, the ability to buy up Minnesota farmland is increasingly difficult for most beginning farmers. But some still try (and succeed).
Sheep grazed on native prairie and flowers planted at a solar farm run by Enel Green Power in Shafer, Minn., that supplies Xcel Energy.

5 changes Minnesotans will likely see from the historic climate bill

The Inflation Reduction Act has the potential to transform the way we drive, heat our homes and grow our food.
Montreal-based MTY Food Group is the franchisor behind more than 80 restaurant names, including Papa Murphy’s pizza.

A look at the Canadian company buying Famous Dave's

Quebec-based MTY Group got its start in shopping malls and business food courts.
Farmfest attendees gathered last week to watch ABC Drones of Rochester demonstrate how drones can be used to selectively spray crops.

Don't mess with federal crop insurance, farmers say. Others aren't so sure

Some experts say time is ripe to drop the carrot and pick up the stick.
Adam Lund and Dustin Johnson looked around a precision spraying system at Farmfest on Tuesday, helped by Greeneye Technology’s Kody Paxton. Johnson

Minnesota farmers call outside investments 'a sticky situation'

Minnesota farmers at the annual Farmfest say they have been paying attention to deals in North Dakota, including the purchase of ag land by a Bill Gates-backed trust and the pending development of a corn mill by Chinese investors.
Republican Tyler Kistner and DFL U.S. Rep. Angie Craig discussed agriculture at the Farmfest congressional candidate forum Tuesday. In a rematch of 20

At Farmfest, Minnesota congressional candidates pledge support for rural economies

In the competitive Second District race, Rep. Angie Craig and challenger Tyler Kistner flexed their farm country credentials.
Inna Zhemchuzhkyna and Inna Kozionova, left to right, packed grape tomatoes on Wednesday, July 27, at Untiendt’s Vegetable Farm in Waverly, Minn.

Impact of Ukraine war ripples across state's farm economy

In the U.S., few places have ties to Ukraine as deep as Minnesota, where a rocket landing in a wheat field in Kherson can mean higher prices for a farmer in Kittson County, or a land mine outside Odesa raises the stress for an ag exec in Inver Grove Heights.
Illinois U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos and Minnesota U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, both Democrats, sit at a table near a John Deere tractor in a farm shed east of N

Minnesota farmers share farm bill priorities at congressional listening session

The House agriculture subcommittee on commodities held the session on a southern Minnesota farm on Monday.
A report funded by the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Farmers Union and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture proposes one-year paid apprentices

Minnesota's meat lockers need apprentices to solve bottlenecks, report says

Some shoppers turned to local farmers and butcher shops during the pandemic, but smaller producers are stretched thin.
Holstein dairy cows feed on silage in a large free-stall farm barn. Once the aid money to the dariy industry starts to dry up, many producers will con

Minnesota dairy farmer advocates for regenerative ag at congressional hearing

A Minnesota dairy farmer from Fillmore County testified to a House oversight subcommittee on Tuesday about regenerative agricultural practices that aid water and soil health.
A file photo of Thom Peterson, now Minnesota Agriculture Department Commissioner, when he was a lobbyist for the Minnesota Farmers Union.

Minnesotan agriculture leaders to join USDA trade trip to Philippines

The state's crop lobbies, as well as the top ag official, will join agriculture and food groups from around the country on a three-day mission to Manila.
In a 2018 file photo, the cover crop of winter rye is beginning to emerge from the soil on Martin Larsen’s farm near Byron.

Carbon farming takes root at Land O'Lakes subsidiary

Truterra, owned by ag giant Land O'Lakes, launched a carbon program in 2021, paying farmers to adopt other earth-friendly farm practices. Truterra sells those credits to Microsoft in a carbon-offsetting deal.
A flame cultivator at work on an organic grain farm in Minnesota. Federal prosecutors say a southwestern Minnesota farmer reaped up to $46 million in

Cottonwood County farmer charged in $46 million organic grain fraud scheme

The top federal prosecutor in Minnesota announced an indictment on Monday of a Jeffers man for marketing non-GMO grains as organic.
A CHS truck carrying fuel.

CHS reports half-a-billion in quarterly profit as war in Ukraine roils grain and fuel markets

Strong demand for oil, higher commodity markets drove profits for the nation's largest agribusiness cooperative, headquartered in Minnesota.
Trailers sit outside the Cargill Inc. beef plant in High River, Alberta, on May 4, 2020.

Meatpackers still face price-fixing complaints in federal court in Minnesota

Smithfield's settlement doesn't end the lawsuit, which also names Minnesota's Hormel. A similar suit against the "Big 4" beef packers, including Cargill, is before the same judge.
Wheat sold for $13 a bushel in Roseau, Minn., on May 16, but this week it was closer to $9.

Ag commodity prices cool after late-spring spikes

Corn prices hit $8 a bushel in the spring, but have since retreated. The same is true with wheat and soybeans as Brazil harvests, shipments escape the Black Sea and hedge funds drop ag commodities.
A Midwest cornfield.

Will the corn be 'knee-high by the Fourth of July'? Maybe, this year

The outdated slogan may be relevant this year after heavy rains and cold temperatures delayed Minnesota's corn crop season.