Putting grants to good use

LYON COUNTY – One cooks up sweet treats, and the other raises pigs. But while Steven Klein and Jance Vandelanotte’s businesses are pretty different from each other, they’re both expanding. And both producers were in the spotlight on Tuesday afternoon, on part of a tour by members of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

MDA representatives, including Assistant Commissioner Charlie Poster, traveled through west-central Minnesota this week to visit with recipients of grants from the Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation (AGRI) Program. In particular, the tour was highlighting projects that received Livestock Investment grants and Value Added grants. Two stops on the tour Tuesday were Klein Foods in Marshall, and Jance Vandelanotte’s farm in rural Cottonwood.

AGRI Program grants are meant to encourage sustainable agribusiness growth around the state, the MDA said.

“We’re happy to be able to help,” Poster said while visiting area grant recipients. The AGRI program has made about $10.2 million a year in grants available over two years, he said.

Klein said he started out as a commercial honey producer. But in the 1990s, as agriculture in southwest Minnesota began to shift away from beef production and more toward corn and soybeans, it became harder to find plants like alfalfa and clover that would support honeybees. Instead of focusing on honey production, Klein said, “We started developing specialty products that had honey in them.”

Klein Foods, Inc., makes a variety of products ranging from barbecue sauce to syrup and jam. But the product that’s really taken off, Klein said, is fudge. The business made and sold about 18 tons of fudge last year, marketed under the Walnut Grove Mercantile label. A lot of the fudge is sold through school fundraisers, Klein said.

“Fundraisers have been growing about 30 to 40 percent a year,” he said.

Klein said receiving an AGRI grant has helped with plans to expand the business. Klein Foods is investing in equipment like a new freezer, and the grant will also help with sourcing Minnesota-produced ingredients and hiring new employees.

“It’s going to add a lot to what we’re doing,” Klein said.

For Vandelanotte, an AGRI livestock grant has helped him get a start on a new venture. Vandelanotte, 24, farms in the Cottonwood area and decided to go into pig finishing as well. He bought a hog barn that already existed on property in rural Cottonwood.

“The opportunity was there,” Vandelanotte said, but it came with a cost. The barn wasn’t set up to raise pigs as efficiently as Vandelanotte wanted, and it took more than a month of work and a big financial investment to renovate it, he said. The grant, he said, “helps a lot.”

Now, Vandelanotte said he’s raising 1,200 finishing pigs.

There are big costs involved in getting started raising livestock, but Vandelanotte and Kelly Anderson of the MDA said it’s a lot easier than trying to buy cropland at today’s prices.

Anderson said AGRI livestock grants have been beneficial in helping young farmers like Vandelanotte get a start in agriculture.

“The average age is (for livestock grant recipients) is surprisingly young,” Anderson said.

Poster said more information about the AGRI grant program is available at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s website, www.mda.state.mn.us.