Thom Petersen, Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture
In the tough days of owning his first farm, Thom Petersen always had a dream: to combine his love for politics and agriculture.
He lived out that dream for 16 years as Minnesota Farmers Union Government Relations Director, and now as the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
“I lived with almost nothing for many years, but I always had a dream about what I wanted to do, and that kept me going,” he said. “It’s in my heart to help farmers so they can do better. That’s our mission at MFU and at MDA.”
And that’s why he styles himself as a servant leader, taking phone call after phone call from farmers all over the state, listening to them empathetically as they share their stories. From that and from his own experience, he knows what they’re going through on a deeper level than just what you can see on paper.
Paying it forward
Before he was MFU’s main face at the State Capitol, Thom was an active Farmers Union member. That was thanks to former Field Services Director Ron Hauglie. When Thom bought his first farm in the early 1990s, Ron, who lived nearby, visited him to make him an MFU member.
“I was politically active growing up,” Thom said. “I knew a little bit about MFU and it sounded good to me. Back then, dues were $30 a year. I did not have $30. Ron said he’d pay my dues for the first year but made me promise that if I put away $3 a month, next year I’d be able to pay. I did that and have been a member ever since.”
Ron made sure to invite Thom to the Chisago/Isanti County meeting, where Thom was elected a delegate to the state convention. The organization made sure he could get there, too. Moved by the way Ron and others at MFU invested in him, he’s paid Ron’s deed forward since, paying the first year of membership dues for those in whom he saw potential to become excellent members.
It makes sense, then, that when Thom was applying to become Government Relations Director, he talked about his ideas for helping our members get more engaged.
“I really appreciate the opportunity that (then-MFU President) Doug Peterson gave me,” Thom said. “I went up and talked to Doug at the State Fair booth for an hour. It was his first year as state president. He looked at the booth and said, ‘I’m thinking about putting in a coffee shop.’” (He did so a year later.) “Doug had a lot of ideas, and he thought I did too.”
One of his priorities was showing members how much impact they could have on policy.
“I was always so proud that our members could change the story,” he said. “When they’d come and testify, our members made impact on bills.”
Even if farmers can’t make it to the Capitol, the phone calls he gets from them serve as good talking points at the Capitol and elsewhere.
“When someone calls me and says the bank told them to sell half their herd, I can let them know to call a Farm Advocate,” Thom said. “I can also tell reporters or legislators that I just took a call from a farmer and am seeing directly how tough it is… One of our dairy farmers called me a couple weeks ago, and he cried the whole time he was talking to me. I’ve always thought of him as one of the best farmers. I was choked up.”
Prepared to lead
Of course being a Commissioner is no easy task, but Thom feels he has the right background for it.
“Coming from a general farm organization really prepared me for this role,” he said. “MFU has members in all 87 Minnesota counties and represents all different types of agriculture. It’s a different type of role in that I’m managing employees, but I’m still an advocate for all types of farmers.”
A big change is that he has a direct line to Gov. Tim Walz, whom he’s met with several times now to discuss issues and budgets. He’s told the governor about the overwhelming turnout at the recent MDA Hemp Forum, for one thing.
“We expected 150 people and got 400,” Thom said. “My message to them was to tell their legislators about it. They need to know this is exploding.”
Hemp was one of the many issues Thom dealt with as Government Relations Director and will continue to encounter as Commissioner. One that grew in significance during his MFU tenure was water quality.
“When I started (at MFU), we didn’t have the Clean Water Council or the Ag Water Quality Certification program,” he said. “Also farm labor issues, when farmers don’t have family members working for them and have to look elsewhere.
“My biggest disappointment was not being able to do more for our dairy farmers. I kept a chart on my wall where I wrote the number of dairy farms. It started at 10,600. We’re down to 2,700 now. I could see it out of the corner of my eye every day.”
When Thom goes home to his farm in Pine City, he interacts with real farmers there too. He makes a point to get to know them and care about them.
“My neighbors are farmers. When I go to my kids’ basketball games, everyone there is a farmer,” he said.
You may have seen Thom and his sons Dylan and Waylon showing miniature horses at the Minnesota State Fair. It’s Thom’s hobby through which he decompresses from long days at the Capitol.
“I believe in having something outside of work to keep you busy,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to go and have something else to think about when you’re having a bad day. Being able to go out to the barn, that takes off some pressure.”
He developed a passion for horses as a child, riding and showing, both of which he said he was “halfway decent” at. He participated in 4-H showing, and later on he had a business in horses while he was farming.
“I want to thank my parents for being so supportive and helpful,” he said.
The future of Farmers Union
Thom assures that he’s not going anywhere – he plans to remain an active Farmers Union member, as he has for his whole career in agriculture.
“My wife Alana is our county treasurer, and I plan on going to my county meetings and going to the state convention,” he said. “Our organization celebrated 100 years in Minnesota this year, and I am proud to have worked for the organization for more than 16 years. I’m confident we’ll have another great 100 years. We have a great staff at MFU.
“I thank President Gary Wertish and our Full Board of Directors, too, for all their good decisions. I look forward to staying active and seeing everybody again.”