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New U of M president comes to Farmfest

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 08/17/2011 3:38 PM

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GILFILLAN, Minn. — New University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler had been on the job just 32 days when he stopped at Farmfest last week.

The visit, one of several stops for Kaler in southwestern Minnesota, is important in his first 100 days as president, he said.

"I am here to listen and learn what we do well and to understand about the things we could be doing better," Kaler told the Farmfest crowd.

He was at the Minnesota Farm Bureau's pancake breakfast at the Forum Tent to start his Farmfest visit. At the Minnesota Corn Growers tent he ate corn ice cream and slipped into a race car advertising ethanol. He also learned about the Discovery Farms Minnesota program, a producer-led effort to gather field-scale information on water quality impacts from a variety of farming systems in different settings across the state.

At the Minnesota Soybean Growers tent he met several students. Some will be attending the U of M as freshmen and one is transferring from another college this fall. He met the Pork Ambassador candidates and talked research with members of the Soybean Research and Promotion Council.

The 1,700 acres at UMore Park that the University is considering selling for sand and gravel development was a concern Kalar heard. The person suggested using the land for research.

Kaler met Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson and visited with representatives of the AgrAbility program, which assists disabled farmers in obtaining the necessary equipment to help them gain mobility.

It was the kind of visit he wanted.

Kaler has found a lot of good will towards the university during his travels, he said. People have shared their concerns over challenges facing the university.

Agriculture is a significant part of the university's mission, he told the crowd. The Morrill Act, which established the land grant university system, was enacted 149 years ago.

"There have been many significant advances in agriculture since then," he said. "The next 150 years will be just as productive."

When talking to reporters after addressing the public, Kaler said all U of M departments will be reviewed to assess program efficiencies and how to make them better.

The university's budget, barring any further cuts from the state, is stable, he said. But he is focusing on evaluating the value of everything in the U's programs.

During his first month at the U of M, Kaler has met with the university's departments and with donors and stakeholders, he said.

Last week's two-day trip to greater Minnesota was his first visiting rural areas since he took the position. He stopped in Marshall to address the Rotary on his vision for the university's future and toured Newport Labs, a private diagnostic lab and manufacturer of autogenous biologics for swine and cattle, in Worthington. He also visited Southwest Research and Outreach Center's University on the Prairie at Lamberton. He is planning trips for other areas of the state in the near future.

He doesn't have a farm background, but recognizes the importance of agriculture to the state and the U of M's land grant mission.

Kaler has a degree in chemical engineering. He received his bachelor's degree, with honors, from the California Institute of Technology and his doctorate from the University of Minnesota. He joined the Department of Chemical Engineering faculty at the University of Washington and moved to the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Delaware as an associate professor in 1989. He became a department chair in 1996 and was chosen dean of the College of Engineering in 2000.

When asked about rural development in Minnesota, Kaler said developing partnerships and having creativity and becoming pro active are important. It will take partnerships in the community and some sweat equity to make things happen. The Research and Outreach Center's can take part in that development as well.

Kaler said all programs, including Extension and ag research, will be reviewed. He's looking for greater efficiencies in each department.