In the News

President Kaler Gives Agri-Growth his Outlook on Agriculture

The new University president shares his vision for the future of agriculture at the U of M.

(The following interview originally appeared in the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council Newsletter, Vol. 24, Issue 8, August 2011.)

Last month Eric W. Kaler assumed the presidency of the University of Minnesota (U of M). President Kaler earned a B.S. degree, with honors, in chemical engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1978 and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1982.

President Kaler received one of the first Presidential Young Investigator Awards from the National Science Foundation in 1984 and has received numerous other awards for his research, including the American Chemical Society (ACS) Award in Colloid or Surface Chemistry in 1998. He is a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the ACS. Further, he has authored or co-authored more than 200 peer-reviewed papers and holds ten U.S. patents.

A month into his new position as president of the University of Minnesota, theAgri-Growth Council sat down with President Kaler to hear about his perspective and plans for agriculture at the University of Minnesota.


Q: What does "agriculture" mean to you, both personally and for the University of Minnesota?

A: I absolutely am a city boy, my mother grew up on a farm in southern Indiana, and I understand the special farming heritage in Minnesota. During my time at the University of Delaware, I learned a lot about the poultry industry (Delaware produces over 200 million broilers a year), and about the sophistication, scale, and complexity of modern agriculture. With ten patents of my own, I care about product development.

I also know that agriculture is a very significant and complex  part of the University, too, and I need to better know and more fully understand the many issues, challenges and opportunities within the ag community. I want to be your partner and I want the U of M to be a critical part of the ag community's success.

Q: What role does the University of Minnesota serve in the state's agriculture industry?

A: When the University was established in 1851, agriculture was a key component of our mission, and with the Morrill Act in 1862 it became a central part of the University's land-grant status. It continues to be a major aspect of what we do.

Over the years that mission has evolved - just as the needs of our state have evolved - but we are still home to the state's only College of Veterinary Medicine, we do world renowned plant and soil research, we have 16 regional Extension offices, we are the lifeline to 4-H and the youth in our communities, we work with you on business retention and expansion, and our College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) has nine Research and Outreach Centers across the state.

As a globally recognized public research university, we are leaders in groundbreaking food safety and food science research and development.

We are proud of this heritage and proud of producing scholars, researchers and well-trained young people to be your employees and partners in the state's second-largest industry, which produces an extraordinary $16 billion worth of income from agricultural marketing in the state.

Graduates of CFANS are successful members of your industry. More than 80 percent of CFANS graduates are employed within six months of earning their degrees. We regularly hear from you about the need for workforce development. You embrace our graduates.

We offer the only program in the state that licenses K-12 ag teachers. We train the trainers. 

We also regularly make the case in public debate for the importance of agricultural research and development. Phil Pardey, a professor in our Applied Economics Department, has recently published a study that found that federal and other public investment in agricultural research improves productivity and, ultimately, lowers food prices in a world in which food prices are soaring.

Just like state funding for the University - and all public higher education - is at a critical crossroads, so is U.S. agricultural research and development. We want to continue to be leaders in agricultural research.

Q: What experiences or thoughts do you have about land grant institutions and extension outreach?

A: Of course, one of the key elements of the Morrill Act, which established land grant institutions, was to promote practical education in the area of agriculture. And the Smith-Lever Act later formalized the Extension Service. We are committed to that, with two-thirds of Extension's 800 researchers, educators and staff living and working in Greater Minnesota.

We also understand that Extension provides the front door to the University for many Minnesotans, with more than 34,000 volunteers, 700,000 annual program participants and 13 million website visits per year. We want to keep that door open and welcoming.

And our Research and Outreach Centers translate research breakthroughs into useful information and products for Minnesota producers and agribusiness.

Q: How will you address multiple years of reduced state funding for the University of Minnesota and what impact will that have on CFANS and the other agriculture-related entities at the University?

A: Over the past 15 years we have experienced painful cuts to our overall University budget. In the most recent legislative session, we took an almost eight percent reduction.

Despite even larger cuts than that to our state special funding for our agriculture programs, we have continued to make sure that CFANS doesn't experience a disproportionate cut to its budget.

We value CFANS tremendously. Like all of our colleges, it receives funding based on productivity and performance. Meanwhile, we continue to develop partnerships with industry groups, and we are investigating endowments to help us as state funding continues to decline.

The state now supplies only 18 percent of our budget. When I was a graduate student at the U of M in 1978, state funding amounted to about 43 percent of overall funding. The conversation with the decision makers in the state has to change the direction of that trend.

Q: How do you plan to connect with the agriculture community in Minnesota?

A: Regularly and thoughtfully.

Here's a good example: One month into my administration I took my first community visit out of the Twin Cities. It was focused on agriculture. I travelled to Marshall, a thriving regional center in Greater Minnesota with a regional Extension office. There, I spoke to business and agricultural leaders at the Marshall Rotary.

I also met with the chairmen of both the House and Senate agriculture committees, and the vice chairman of the Senate agriculture committee.

I toured Newport Labs in Worthington where University alumni are performing terrific work to ensure that veterinarians and livestock producers are equipped with cutting-edge preventive, diagnostic and educational tools.

The next day I visited Farmfest and met with many folks there, including leaders of commodity groups. I then stopped in on the next generation of agricultural scientists and producers when I chatted with junior high and high school students at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton, who were being taught by U professors at an extraordinary program called University on the Prairie.

I plan to develop strong working relationships with many lawmakers, policy makers and the Governor on agriculture issues, especially as they pertain to educating our students and conducting vital research and development on our campuses.

Q: Do you plan to continue the tradition that President Bruininks started of hosting an annual breakfast at Eastcliff for state agriculture leaders?

A: I'd love to continue to host the annual breakfast.

One request: Can you bring the farm fresh eggs?

Seriously, I look forward to seeing you there to strengthen the partnership between Minnesota's critical and vibrant agricultural community and the University of Minnesota.

Interview reproduced with permission from the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council


Download the full issue of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council Newsletter, Vol. 24, Issue 8, August 2011.