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Minnesota pork industry bounces back after spring 2020 challenges
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Despite the challenges pork producers have faced in the last year, with processing plants facing temporary closures and decreased production due to COVID-19, one thing that Dave Preisler says has remained constant was the production of an affordable and safe source of protein for customers, something producers will continue to do.

Overall, Preisler, Minnesota Pork Board and Minnesota Pork Producers Association CEO who lives in Le Sueur County, feels the pork industry has bounced back and that hog prices are favorable compared to past prices. While packing plants also experienced challenges last spring with COVID, Preisler says those numbers have dwindled.

Pork is a vital part of Minnesota’s economy. The state’s home to more than 3,000 pig farms, and ranks second in value and number of market pigs raised. This year, Preisler says, the industry will generate $3 billion in farm income. Looking at various agriculture products raised in Minnesota ranked in value, pigs are third, followed by cattle, milk and poultry. Corn and soybeans are ranked in the first and second spots, respectively.

The MN Pork Board finances research that’s useful for pork producers and hog farmers. Preisler said it also promotes the product, pork industry and provides continuing education for hog farmers. The MN Pork Producers Association provides public policy and advocacy on behalf of hog farmers. Both organizations, Preisler says, represent the interest of pork producers and promote the industry as a whole.

Production remains constant

Local producer Tom Sammon, of southwest Faribault, agrees that although there were definitely challenges in the last 12 months, the supply to the customer was almost non-interrupted.

“The whole safety issues and standards we produced pork by didn’t change,” said Sammon. “There’s no variation, no issues and the pigs only get antibiotics when they are sick. We raise crops as well and go through the whole cycle of producing pork, using their manure as ‘organic fertilizer’ on the crops.”

Sammon, who has been farming for more than 50 years, says his family was lucky. They didn’t have to euthanize any pigs last year, though there were other producers that did.

“We did things to slow down their growth and did some minor tweaking of things to get through the issue,” said Sammon. “We were very fortunate.”

In southeastern Minnesota, most pigs are shipped to processing plants in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota. Direct impacts on farms depended on the packing company that individual farm was selling to. The Hormel Plant in Austin, Preisler said, slowed down last spring, but never shut down completely. That wasn’t the case for all plants. The Smithfield Plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, closed for a month.

That caused backups for farmers with pigs ready for processing and an overwhelming number of pigs who grew too large to be processed, forcing them to be euthanized.

Farmers who euthanized their pigs when plants were shut down due to COVID got a hand from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Hog Depopulation Cost-Share Program, which reimbursed farmers for the cost of putting pigs down and helped with disposal. While helpful, the program did not reimburse producers for the value of the animal they would have originally from processors.

Though not every farm needed to put animals down, Preisler said many farms tried to slow the growth of pigs by changing their diets and tried to hold them until things returned to normal. About 90% of the pigs went to rendering plants, for use in pet food and fertilizer.

Though there may have been more euthanized, Preisler estimates that 300,500 pigs were entered into the program. That’s a fraction of the 17 million pigs Minnesota producers raise in one year.

The pork industry has bounced back, but in some ways the industry is still recovering. While the financial impact differed from farm to farm depending on the marketing decisions they had to make, the industry is seeing profitability now. Preisler said it looks like that will be the case now for the next several months, up to a year.

“That will be very helpful in order to build back balance sheets for farms,” added Preisler.

From a packing plant standpoint, Preisler feels the temporary closures of the plants helped improve mitigation strategies.

“They learned a lot about what really worked and what didn’t from a standpoint of keeping folks healthy,” said Preisler. “That’s why you did see masks, face shields and also Plexiglas put up within the plant to separate folks.”

Owatonna creating new online school
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A new Owatonna school will be available to students this fall, but this one won’t be in a traditional setting.

The Minnesota Department of Education recently approved Owatonna Public Schools as an online school provider, according to Michelle Krell, director of teaching and learning. School officials said they’re excited about the new opportunity, which aims to give area students and families more options for education. The online school will be considered a separate school within the district, its exact name yet to be determined.

“We now can offer a comprehensive education program K-12 for students, not only in Owatonna Public Schools, but any student within the state of Minnesota,” Krell told the Owatonna School Board Monday.

Krell and her team are continuing to develop the program and with a starting framework, the team is hammering out the details to tailor the program to the district. They are also determining a way to communicate the online program to prospective families and students.

Elementary students in the program will have many opportunities to connect with public school teachers through virtual morning meetings and learning blocks, Krell explained. The district wants to make sure that prospective families know there will still be support for families via the “learning coach model.” Krell is developing training for families on how to help guide their children in their learning.

Sixth- through eighth-grade students in the online program will be able to work at their own pace, but will still be managed by a classroom teacher. High school students in the online program will be learning more independently, self paced and flexible.

“I think this is a great opportunity for families that maybe have chosen homeschooling within our community, within our state,” Krell said. “If they enroll with us, they have the luxury of still continuing to be home … but we provide the device for them free of charge. We provide the curriculum and resources, free of charge, along with all the supports necessary for them to continue to stay on target.”

Krell also highlighted that the new online program would ensure students are still provided with standardized tests, a requirement for homeschool families, she said.

Families outside of the district are welcome to open enroll in the program, but they will have their own registration process that is currently being developed. These students will have to open enroll into OPS. While the elementary level registration forms for in-district students are ready to go, Krell and team are still working on registration forms for sixth- through 12th-grade students.

Krell hopes to have all of the forms together and the webpage live on the district website within the next week or two. In the meantime, families with questions can call the office and ask for Krell.

OPS has applied for both a full time sixth- through 12th-grade comprehensive program as well as a sixth- through 12th-grade supplemental program.

District students enrolled in the online program will still be able to participate in extracurricular activities and sports. Online students may also decide to come into the school building for group-oriented classes such as band, choir and orchestra as part of the supplemental program. The district is exploring online club opportunities to offer students as well, like chess.

Superintendent Jeff Elstad said the district is exploring potential opportunities for students outside of the OPS district through a shared time agreement. For example, a Medford student may continue going to Medford schools and extracurriculars, but decide they want to enroll in an online class or two through the Owatonna program.

“Obviously we have to come up with some agreements with the local districts that we will be serving. Or there’s the option that Michelle alluded to which is full time open enrollment,” Elstad said.

School officials expect to make adjustments to the program as families and students express interest in enrolling and as officials learn from their experience. They hope that this option will convince families who left for online academies during the pandemic to return to the district.

“Right now, we’re going through the registration process. I often say that it’s the reverse Field of Dreams sort of mentality. They have to come and then you build it. So when it comes to staffing within this we’re looking at about how many students might want to partake because then that’s going to dictate how many staff we would assign,” Elstad said.

Albrecht set to retire as president of Owatonna Hospital, District One

After 15 years at the Owatonna Hospital and roughly three years at District One in Faribault, Dave Albrecht will be retiring from his role as president of the Allina Health hospitals on April 16.

Albrecht joined Owatonna Hospital in 2006 as the director of operations and finance. His main priority upon his hiring was overseeing the construction of a new hospital and entering a joint venture with Mayo Clinic Health System – a three year venture that included the design, construction and moving coordination of the $50 million facility.

In July 2009, Albrecht was named interim president following the departure of Dorothy Erdmann. He was named the permanent president two months later.

In December 2017, District One announced Albrecht as its next president after Stephen Pribyl announced his retirement earlier that same year. Allina Health combined the roles of the two hospital presidents, having Albrecht share his time between the two locations, maintaining visibility and relationships with boards, staff, leadership teams and communities at both hospitals.

Owatonna and District One have continued to operate under separate licenses.

Scott Leighty, senior vice president of regional hospital and clinical service at Allina Health, said Albrecht’s impact on the hospitals and Allina Health have been long-lasting.

“I know I speak for many when I say that it has been a privilege to work with him,” Leighty said. “Dave’s focus on doing what’s right for those we serve, his deep knowledge of the hospital industry, and his dedication to the community and employees have made a real difference for Allina Health and our communities.”

Leighty said Albrecht’s successor will continue to have responsibility for both hospital locations. The search process is currently ongoing.

Suspect arrested in Tuesday School Street stabbing

A suspect has been arrested in relation to the stabbing that took place early Tuesday morning, according to police.

Owatonna police confirmed that Tierrah Vachon Lee Wells, 34, of Waseca is the suspect in custody.

In the early hours of the morning, police were called to 1120 E School St. for a report of a stabbing following a domestic dispute. According to police, a 42-year-old man had suffered stabs wounds to the chest and was airlifted to Rochester with life threatening injuries.

At approximately 11:55 a.m. Tuesday, Waseca police conducted a traffic stop under the direction of the Owatonna Police Department. Wells, who had been identified as a suspect in the stabbing incident, was arrested and transported to the Steele County Detention Center.

According to police, the victim is still hospitalized in Rochester. There is no further update on his condition.

The police are still asking that any members of the public who may have information about this incident to call the Owatonna Police Department at 507-444-3800.

Assisting at the scene were the Steele County Sheriff’s Office, South Central Drug Investigation Unit, Mayo Clinic Ambulance Service, and North Memorial Air Care.

This remains an ongoing investigation.