Last month, I attended the Great Plains Empower Energy Conference. It was a good event, showcasing all types of energy produced in North Dakota, with nearly 250 people in attendance, including elected officials, interested organizations, the press and public.  

I have attended this conference in the past and was intrigued by the change in dialogue. The focus was still heavy on coal and crude oil but renewable fuels – wind, solar, carbon storage and carbon capture – were highly discussed. The overall message was focused on the need for affordable and reliable electricity. North Dakota, as an energy state, can and will be a solution for the energy needs of this country, now and in the future.

As president of NDFU, I attend several conferences annually and participate in educational opportunities. As I participated in the energy conference, I thought, “Why do we, in agriculture, fail to focus our attention on the vast opportunities we have to provide the world with food, like the dialogue surrounding energy?” Agriculture is just as important or maybe more important than energy to North Dakota’s economy.

Agriculture has been a huge asset to our state from inception. It has provided countless benefits to our economy and opportunities for success from farms to cities. Our ability to maintain this success is vested in meeting market demands, adding additional value to the products we produce, adapting to advancing change, and creating sustainability.

Just as the market for energy is changing and demand for renewables and less emissions is necessary, agriculture will have to play a role in meeting new demands of our customers. I understand that we want things to stay the same but that is not how the world works. To be a state that simply produces commodities, and then exports it to another country or region that is willing to buy from the cheapest suppler, is not sustainable. This “no change strategy” forces us to simply become the lowest-cost producer and miss value-added opportunities the market creates.

Watching supply chain challenges due to COVID, our reliance on foreign nations for essentials and monopolistic practices that many companies in food production utilize, it is obvious that the market is demanding a different methodology for food production. Knowing how food is produced, buying local, buying from sustainable sources, and supporting family farm agriculture are new market considerations. I believe we will need to adapt as we should not ignore market forces.  

It may be time that we host an “empower agriculture summit” that brings farmers, industry and politicians together. Not to discuss the past, but what are the opportunities we see in the future? How do we add value that rewards our family farmers and ranchers in the current market and keeps money in the state and in our rural communities?

If we pattern it after the energy conference, we will have all the players in the room engaged in dialogue about how to invest in ourselves to make agriculture more profitable and a greater asset to North Dakota. It will take some investments to bring processing to North Dakota but becoming a state that exports higher value products rather than raw commodities is a great start. Agriculture deserves the same time and investment as energy to make it successful and sustainable in the future.

— NDFU President Mark Watne