Corey Jerzak and his co-worker from Ziegler CAT weren't exactly thrilled when I showed up at the end of the day on Wednesday asking to test-drive the giant tractor they were showcasing at Minnesota Farmfest near Redwood Falls.
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Dressed in a red "I Make MPR Happen" T-shirt, I was definitely not a potential tractor buyer. But once we boarded, Jerzak walked me through all the features: air-conditioned (or heated) seat, GPS screen, auto-steering and row-finder software, fuel efficiency monitor, adjustable shoulder pad, etc.
"How much does one of these cost?" I asked. "Roughly $350,000," Jerzak said.
"You could buy a house with that," our summer photo intern, Maria Cardona, commented later as I told her about the tractor.
Maria had gotten to test-drive a tractor the previous day — or so she thought, until one of our other summer interns, Minnesota native George Dornbach, informed her it was actually an ATV.
Cardona, who grew up in Miami, was new to farm country. Rather than assume the word "coop" was missing a hyphen, Cardona figured all the grain elevators we saw on the drive to Redwood Falls were housing chickens.
At a seed company booth where you could win a baseball cap, Cardona needed a hint on a question about how far apart soybean seeds are planted. "In feet or inches?" she asked. The whole booth roared with laughter. (They gave her the cap just for trying.)
Our photo intern wasn't the only one learning a thing or two about agriculture. At our 10-by-10 Farmfest booth (an MPR News first, by the way), the whole point was to have visitors come up with a question or term about agriculture that a city person wouldn't know.
"Stump the Foodie" was a success, creating nearly 100 new questions and terms that we'll turn into quizzes throughout our new Feeding the Future project. (You can test your knowledge on the first one here.)
A lot of those suggestions, which we had people write on Post-it notes and stick on a white board, were things I didn't know. We covered topics like different kinds of tillage, animal reproduction, even basic science, like: What are the three things a seed needs to germinate?
There were humbling moments, when people would say they'd never heard of MPR News, or when a guy walked by with a "Never Trust the Liberal Media," T-shirt. (For the record, I don't consider MPR News the liberal media. And when people say they hate the media, I don't take it personally.)
And there were some proud moments, like when a physical therapist from the Twin Cities decided to take the day off work and come see Farmfest for himself after hearing MPR News host Tom Weber talk about it with me on the radio.
And it was fun catching up with Scott Haase, a farmer from Blue Earth who I interviewed for my kickoff story in this project. We learned together about how a food scientist from India on the faculty at South Dakota State University is making cookies out of distillers grains, an ethanol byproduct that's usually used only for animal feed.
Those moments weren't the first of this project. A few weeks ago, Cardona did a video interview with a turkey farmer, and he told her to get in touch anytime she had a question about where her food comes from and how it's grown or raised.
The conversations I had with people at Farmfest are not going to be my last. I'll be following up with many of them, who I hope will join a Facebook group dedicated to exploring the future of Midwest agriculture.
We're trying a different kind of journalism with this project, and we're excited about the possibilities. Stay tuned.