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Emerald Ash Borer discovered in western Nicollet County; St. Peter continues management plan

In a surprise to nobody that’s been paying close attention, emerald ash borer has reached Nicollet County. And while the invasive insect has not been located in St. Peter, the city continues to prepare, hoping to limit and reduce eventual impact.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that Nicollet and Redwood were the latest counties with EAB discoveries, and emergency quarantines were put in place on wood movement. Thirty counties have now reported EAB, including neighbors Sibley, Brown and Blue Earth counties. There have been no discoveries in Le Sueur County, meanwhile, but it is almost completely surrounded by counties with sightings.

Jonathan Osthus, emerald ash borer technical assistance coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, spotted this ash tree infected by EAB along Hwy. 15 on the west side of Nicollet County. This was the first identification of the insect in the county. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Osthus)

Jonathan Osthus, EAB technical assistance coordinator with the MDA, said he was on his way to check a known EAB site in Springfield when he noticed signs of the insect’s presence on ash trees along Hwy. 15 in Lafayette Township, western Nicollet County. MDA staff were able to find live EAB larvae and collect samples for federal identification.

“Last week, I was doing some visual surveys throughout that area,” Osthus said. “There was a report from a tree care specialist in Springfield where it had already been identified. On the way there, I noticed some trees along Hwy. 15 with excessive woodpecker holes, and I stopped over and noticed the signs of EAB. The woodpeckers will sort of strip at the bark and make the tree look a bit blonde. The winter time is actually the best time to look.”

The sighting was near New Ulm on the opposite side of Nicollet County from St. Peter. However, Osthus noted that it can take up to three years before EAB’s presence shows in ash trees, and while he wasn’t going to speculate, he said it certainly could already be in St. Peter.

“By the time you see evidence, you’re already behind,” Osthus said.

This map from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture will soon be updated to highlight Nicollet County as one of those where emerald ash borer has been spotted. Le Sueur County is now almost surrounded by counties where EAB has been spotted.

Emerald ash borer larvae kill ash trees by tunneling under the bark and feeding on the part of the tree that moves nutrients up and down the trunk. Often, the trees show several signs of infestation because of this. Woodpeckers like to feed on EAB larvae and woodpecker holes may indicate the presence of emerald ash borer. Also, the EAB tunneling can cause the bark to split open, revealing characteristic S-shaped galleries underneath. It was first spotted in Minnesota in 2009.

Nicollet County contains a high number of ash trees compared to much of greater Minnesota.

There are about 1 billion ash trees in the state of Minnesota. They were heavily planted in communities across the state in the 70s, 80s and beyond after many Elm trees were devastated by Dutch Elm disease. They are also common in natural settings.

Tree experts, like those at MDA, are encouraging communities to diversify their tree programs now, becoming less reliant on the ash, but they also hope to buy time, in order to better stave off the invasive insect.

“We hope to maintain and keep ash in the natural ecosystem,” Osthus said.

Local action

Nicollet County Extension Educator Emma Severns said it was no surprise to hear EAB had been spotted in the county.

“Oh, it was definitely coming and expected,” she said. “A lot of the surrounding counties already had it, so it was just a matter of time before it was spotted. Obviously, without people out there checking all the time, it’s hard to know if it’s in our county, but it was just a matter of time.”

Related to St. Peter, she added, “I got a couple calls for technical assistance from people who suspected it, but it turned out to be another bug or disease. That doesn’t mean it’s not in the city, but I haven’t seen it yet.”

Nicollet County Extension offers technical assistance, where residents can call the Extension office (507-934-7828) if they suspect EAB or other tree diseases. Extension also offers kits to treat ash trees and help limit the spread of EAB. But most importantly, Extension wants to help educate residents on what to look for, so they can record and report EAB when needed.

“First of all, they need to know how to identify ash trees,” Severns said. “The first thing would be to see if the ash trees have opposite branching, five to many leaflets and compound leaves. People may have to look up those terms.”

On identifying EAB’s presence, she said, “If you can see the bug on the plant, that’s obviously a tell-tale sign. The main thing you can see on the tree is woodpecker holes, as they peck the tree to go for larvae; another sign would be bark that’s cracking or splitting along the tree. And if you see the s-shape galleries under the bark, that’s another thing to look for.”

The city of St. Peter, meanwhile, already has an EAB plan in place.

“Within the EAB management plan there are three important strategies to help mitigate the effects of EAB,” states the city’s site at saintpetermn.gov/242/Emerald-Ash-Borer. “The city has adopted a proactive treatment and/or removal of ash trees, removing those in decline and those requested to be removed. The intent is to slow the spread of EAB by reducing certain host trees. The city shall consider pesticide use for EAB on public trees to protect trees and reduce beetle populations in potential infested areas. Finally, replanting, as ash trees are removed, is perhaps the most important part of the EAB Management Plan. Reforestation with diverse species of young trees is the primary objective in retaining the city’s urban forest. While it is impossible to avoid pests and diseases, diversity in planting with mixed planting schemes can reduce the impact.”

In 2018, the city has approximately 1,000 ash trees in the public right of way, which makes up about 22% of all boulevard trees. In the years since, Public Works staff has removed a number of the weaker trees, according to a classification system, which labels trees by size, age, class and more.

“We removed some trees that are weaker and more susceptible to EAB,” said City Administrator Todd Prafke. “The plan, and the hope, based on the University of Minnesota model, is that getting rid of some of the weaker trees would help EAB pass over some of the other trees. They’ve found EAB tends to congregate, so where we can eliminate trees that are weaker, it serves the stronger ones.”

The overall goal, according to Prafke, is to “prevent and reduce impact’ for when EAB does arrive. And that time seems to be getting closer and closer, if not now.

Global product shortages hit local grocery stores, farmers
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Editor’s Note: This is the third and final part of a series on how the global supply chain has impacted the local economy. Previous stories focused on the manufacturing and retail sectors.

The shelves of local grocery stores aren’t empty — they just don’t seem to have the variety of goods many shoppers have come to accept as normal.

“I have an autistic kiddo. It makes feeding him extremely challenging. He is particular about brands and packaging,” said Becky Bain, of Owatonna with regard to the shortages afflicting local grocery stores. “I end up having to overbuy everything to make sure he has food available.”

In Waseca, where groceries can only be purchased at Walmart or convenience stores, because the city has been without a grocery store since February 2020, residents reported difficulty tracking down soy milk, butterscotch pudding, Ritz crackers and more.

For Waseca residents, who have not had a grocery store in town since Cash Wise announced its departure in February 2020, the narrowing of options at local grocery stores is especially frustrating. (File photo/southernminn.com)

“We need to bring back another grocery store,” said Chloe Barnes.

Sam Alderman, of St. Peter, can’t find certain dairy products, like the yogurt and half-and-half he prefers.

“It’s certainly an inconvenience, but also a reminder that we had taken food supply chains for granted,” he said.

Where are the groceries?

At Just Food Co-op in Northfield, shortages aren’t seen equally across food categories. According to Joanelle Noeller, human resources generalist at Just Food, they seem to crop up when particular materials like glass and aluminum are involved. This includes pasta sauces, peanut butters, canned items, beverages in glass bottles and more.

In other words, it’s not always the food itself, but the materials traditionally used to get that food to consumers.

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, one of Just Food’s distributors has even announced that it will be temporarily discontinuing sales of whole cranberries, opting to prioritize sales of jellied cranberry sauce. This is just one example of many distributors recently deciding to ramp up production of their most popular items while temporarily discontinuing less popular products.

Just Food Co-op in Northfield has been unable to acquire certain food items like canned foods, certain peanut butters and others that require materials like glass and aluminum, according to Joanelle Noeller, human resources generalist. (File photo/southernminn.com)

And with demand holding steady while supply chains are strained following COVID-19’s disruption to the global economy, prices have predictably crept up.

“We are definitely seeing price increases with every new invoice, so we have to adjust our prices accordingly,” Noeller said, adding that she’s noticed those increases across food categories.

That might be because while not all food products require materials like glass and aluminum; many require significant labor, like farming, packaging and shipping. The workforce shortage, cropping up during the pandemic and not waning months after vaccines have become widely available, makes those products similarly difficult for grocery stores to get on their shelves.

It might also have something to do with the amount farmers are spending on their own operations. According to Mark Wehe, a business management instructor with South Central College who works directly with farmers on their financial statements, product shortages have caused fertilizers to increase in price by 170% since this time last year. Herbicide expenses have gone up 130%.

And for livestock production — a “365-day event,” as Wehe put it, requiring enormous amounts of full-time hired labor every step of the way — the situation is even worse, as the workforce shortage collides with product shortages in a particularly corrosive way.

According to Wehe, while consumers are bearing some of the increased cost by paying more at the butcher shop and grocery store, they’re not paying the whole thing. Part of the cost is calling on farmers alone.

“What we’re dealing with on the producer side is, yes, they’re getting more for their product, but their profitability margins are getting significantly impacted,” he said, adding, “meat margins are getting crushed in this market.”

Fortunately for Noeller, many of the shortages seen at Just Food are largely limited to a narrowing of local consumers’ traditionally wide breadth of choices — not a significant shortage in entire food categories.

“We might not have one brand of something, but we always have a different brand of the same item,” she said. “We’ll always have a type of cracker available or a pasta sauce.”

So, where are the materials?

The fact that the novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, a primary manufacturing hub in China — the manufacturing capital of the world — is a useful metaphor for the pandemic’s impact on the global supply chain.

When the Chinese government shut down factories to stop the spread of COVID-19, economists at the time predicted that, while the supply of goods would subsequently decrease, the temporary closure of stores and malls around the world would similarly lower demand.

That didn’t happen. While supply became depressed and stayed that way, demand didn’t stay low for long. For food, of course, low demand wasn’t really a possibility. And for other products, former President Donald Trump’s $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill in March 2020 — followed by President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill a year later — helped keep demand strong.

But with all those factories shut down for so long, and demand having piled up in the meantime, acute bottlenecks — including for products requiring glass, metal and other materials — started causing massive delays as manufacturing groaned back to life. Warehouses began to fill with products as companies found themselves unable to take in all the product they’d ordered, a problem exacerbated by the recent shortage of truck drivers who would normally transport inventory from warehouses to local stores. This caused massive traffic jams at sea as shipping ports were unable to transport their inventory to warehouses, and thus could not take in more containers.

Joe Smillie, store manager at Hy-Vee in Faribault, reported similar shortages to those seen at Just Food. In addition to an inability to secure whole cranberries, Smillie said Hy-Vee is also having trouble getting a hold of many brands of macaroni and cheese. Purchase orders from Hy-Vee’s Iowa warehouses also aren’t coming in on time, causing delays in shipping to its local grocery stores. He said this has been an issue for nearly a year, though it’s worsened during the summer.

Randy Pitkl, assistant manager of store operations at Hy-Vee in Owatonna, said empty spots on shelves around the grocery store often indicated items the store can’t get a hold of, such as french fried onions. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

“We get a lot of questions like, ‘How come you’re always out of stuff?’ … We get blamed, and then the suppliers get blamed,” Smillie said, though he added, “I think most people are pretty understanding right now of what we’re going through.”

Tina Pothoff, senior vice president of communications at Hy-Vee — whose nearly 300 locations include St. Peter, Mankato, Owatonna, Faribault and New Ulm — said most Hy-Vee locations are experiencing roughly the same thing with regard to shortages, though she said she hasn’t seen its worse effects take hold at the chain.

“Are you going to get that 8-ounce can of your specific brand of corn or cranberries?” Pothoff asked. “We’ll still have all those supplies, but it might be that the packages might be smaller or larger.”

One way Hy-Vee has avoided some of the worst effects of the product shortage, she added, is by transitioning somewhat away from what economists call “just-in-time” management strategies, which is businesses’ preference for ordering just enough product at just the right time to satisfy customers without buying anything that won’t be sold, or that will have to be stored. The global supply chain disruption forced some businesses to adopt more of a “just-in-case” mindset.

At Hy-Vee, that means planning a year out by ordering further ahead of time and substantially increasing the inventory at their central warehouses, a luxury many smaller grocers do not enjoy.

“That’s been a big strategy of ours: order ahead of time, order more, in case we do have problems with supply chains,” Pothoff said. “That strategy has actually paid off for us, especially as we head into the holidays.”

Local businesses react as vaccine mandates hit pause
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Cambria offered vaccines at its locations in Le Sueur, Belle Plaine and Eden Prairie earlier this month. CEO Marty Davis indicated the company would follow any vaccine policies set by the government, but at this time, employees are free to accept or decline vaccinations. (Photo courtesy of Cambria)

Earlier this month, businesses with 100 or more employees were directed by the White House to fully vaccinate their workforces by Jan. 4, 2022 in line with new vaccine requirements by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But enforcement of the new rules covering 84 million American workers was recently suspended by the Biden administration amid a federal appeals court order.

Days after the mandates were announced, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted an emergency stay of the requirement that workers unvaccinated by Jan. 4 submit to weekly COVID testing and wear a facemask.

The order was prompted by lawsuits from more than two dozen states, as well as businesses and industry groups contending the federal government has overstepped its authority.

With the mandate on pause, many major employers, like Le Sueur Incorporated, are quietly drafting vaccination plans in the event the federal mandates are revived. But those plans would not go into effect if the OSHA rule is overturned or remains suspended.

“We do believe the vaccine is one of the most effective means to keep employees healthy and safe. And we encourage every employee at LSI and their family members to seriously consider vaccination,” said John Depree, director of human resources for Le Sueur Incorporated.

“With this said, we are committed to the ideal that our employees’ health is their personal responsibility and choice.”

Depree further stated that employees of the aluminum casting and plastic injection molding manufacturer have effectively kept the coronavirus transmission at the workplace to a minimum.

“Our employees have done an incredible job keeping COVID out of LSI and they continue to do so,” said Depree.“That doesn’t mean we haven’t had employees with COVID, but the potential for workplace transmission has been minimized by their good choices in the workplace. I’m really proud of our workforce.”

Cambria is walking a similar path. The company currently offers vaccines to employees, but does not require them. CEO Marty Davis said the company will wait and see what the rules are and will follow the vaccine mandate if the OSHA guidelines go into effect.

“We’ve had vaccination offerings at all of our facilities. It’s always at our employees’ option, but we certainly provide them the option, and we let them make their choices,” said Davis. “But if there is a mandate, we’ll just follow the rules.”

Cambria recently launched on-site booster dose clinics for employees at its locations in Le Sueur, Belle Plaine and Eden Prairie on Nov. 15, 16 and 17 respectively, through a partnership with Hy-Vee pharmacy. The company’s Pfizer vaccine offerings came on the heels of recent on-site flu shot clinics.

“We greatly appreciate the diligent efforts of our employees to continue to do their jobs safely and to protect themselves and others during these challenging times,” said Cambria Executive Vice President of Operations Brian Scoggin. “We hope that these on-site booster shot opportunities offer a comfortable and convenient option for employees and their family members who would like to receive a COVID-19 booster.”

After the rules were announced, Le Center confectionery manufacturer Maud Borup sent messages to unvaccinated employees, notifying them of the requirements and timing to receive new vaccinations and asking them whether they would choose to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

“There’s a lot to consider and new processes to put in place, like how to check employee’s test results at the beginning of each shift, then how to handle the impact on manufacturing if we have to turn away employees who may not have the proper documentation,” said Karen Edwards, a public relations official at Maud Borup.

Maud Borup already goes beyond OSHA requirements by requiring masks for all employees at the manufacturing facility. Edwards said the company provides each employee with two cloth masks and has disposable masks available if needed.

As of Nov. 7, some two-thirds of the Maud Borup workforce was vaccinated, said Edwards.

Vaccine requirements could pose a challenge to Maud Borup, as the company faces the daunting task of hiring 100 new workers to support a record expansion to the Le Center facility. Amid a rapid growth in demand, the manufacturer has raised hourly rates by 36%, $50 gift cards and meals to employees that work on Saturdays and referral bonuses to existing employees in hopes of recruiting a legion of assemblers, line leads, quality assurance, shipping, warehousing, maintenance, and sanitation workers to allow for a 130,000-square-foot add-on.

But hiring new employees over the past 18 months has been increasingly difficult, said Edwards, and the mandates could disincentive workers from taking a job with the company at a time when a bevy of industries are experiencing labor shortages.

“We’ve lost some employees, yet need a lot more to keep up with demand to grow our business,” said Edwards. “The new requirements are likely to make it even more difficult to recruit employees by putting up another barrier, and may force some existing employees to leave their current job and seek employment at companies that are not affected by these directives, further exacerbating an already difficult employee shortage.”

In St. Peter, local electronics manufacturer Creation Technologies has already instituted a vaccine mandate for new employees, and while it’s made hiring that much harder, leadership still backs the plan.

“Creation, across all 15 locations, we have a vaccination requirement [or new hires],” said general manager John Makela. “That’s been a challenge; other than government agencies and health care, there are only a few companies out there that have that requirement. But we want to protect our employees.”