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Officials develop response plan for ag emergencies

Nobles County employees (from left) Joyce Jacobs, Al Langseth, Stephanie McLain and Ron McCarvel discuss the possibility of a foreign animal disease outbreak at the Government Center in Worthington. Brian Korthals/Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON — Agriculture industry professionals from more than a dozen counties across southern Minnesota connected via video conference Thursday to discuss response plans in the event of an animal disease emergency.

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The diversity of Minnesota agriculture increases the potential for a significant animal disease outbreak. The state leads the nation in turkey production, is third in the nation in hogs, sixth in dairy and 10th in cattle and calf production.

Amber Wilson, senior consultant and training program manager for Kansas City-based SES Inc., an environmental and agricultural consulting company, said the diversity here is much broader than in her home state of Nebraska, where the cattle industry reigns supreme. Ag response teams there have one focus, whereas Minnesota has several.

In leading Thursday’s program, Wilson said the goal for counties was to identify potential agriculture response incidents and authorities, raise awareness of threats to Minnesota agriculture, and review plans to deal with foreign animal disease threats as well as responsibilities.

In Nobles County, Emergency Management Director Joyce Jacobs said a basic response plan exists for a livestock disaster, but Thursday’s exercise was to expand upon it and get attendees thinking about possible disaster scenarios.

“Obviously, the ag industry is huge here in Nobles County, so we need to have a county plan in place should we have a disaster in livestock that would impact our agricultural community,” Jacobs said. “Pulling in our partners is important — they will play a major role in helping us respond to the disaster.”

Representatives from Nobles County Environmental Services, Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service were among those at the meeting in Worthington. Jackson County, where the video conference was based, hosted attendees from the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and other state agencies.

“A big part of (the workshop) is making sure that we have the resources that are currently available listed with contacts, so we can pull in the appropriate agencies to help us with our response,” Jacobs said.

While livestock emergencies were the focus of Thursday’s discussion, Wilson said food contamination, ag chemical spills and plant pests and diseases are all included under the umbrella of agricultural incidents the Minnesota Department of Agriculture responds to. When it comes to livestock, the state’s Board of Animal Health takes the lead.

“They know they’re going to need help if we’re dealing with a foreign animal disease,” Wilson said. “When we deal with a foreign animal disease, we have to work quickly. They spread fast, and we need to contain it early.

According to the latest data, Minnesota producers have $7 billion in livestock and poultry sales annually, another $11 billion in crop sales and total agricultural sales of $26.6 billion.

“There’s a significant amount of economic impact … to producers in your state,” Wilson said, adding that a disease outbreak could have a long-lasting impact on the state economy.

She mentioned the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in England that lasted nine months. The greatest impact to the country wasn’t to agriculture, but to tourism, with 50 jobs lost per day in the service and business sectors.

“In Minnesota, tourism is a big thing,” Wilson said. “We have to think economically beyond agriculture.”

The four main risk areas to livestock in Minnesota are at the grower level, transportation of animals, processing and retail levels.

“We have to protect food up to the point it’s sitting on your plate,” Wilson said. “How do you prevent someone from doing some type of contamination to the industry?”

In Minnesota, livestock movement is a major area of concern — an average of 500 semi loads pass from point to point or through the state every day, 365 days per year.

“Most states don’t really know everything that’s coming through every day,” Wilson said.

Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., Wilson said states had livestock emergency response plans in place. After, there were many more questions and issues raised about food safety and livestock security.

“We looked at things we never thought possible,” she said. “We really started engaging a lot of partners that we hadn’t previously, and bringing in law enforcement to talk about this risk to agriculture.

“Our best defense against a foreign animal disease is to never get it in the first place,” she added.

If it does occur, however, she said the best strategy is a quick response. Developing those response plans was part of Thursday’s exercise.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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