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Imperfect Markets, Imperfect Information and MN-grown Coconuts

March 19, 2014 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

Let’s go back to school and re-learn how we might grow Minnesota’s economy for the future from clever lessons taught to undergraduate students at the University of Minnesota at Crookston.

It starts with information. Valid information. And now all people with access to the worldwide web – not just students – have difficulty separating fact from fiction packaged as legitimate information.

This is why the typical Minnesota farmer belongs to at least one commodity organization, at least one broad-based farm organization, and from three to five cooperative and mutual associations, said Don Loeslie, a former president of the Minnesota and National Wheat Growers Associations. Urban Minnesotans are nearly as organized.

Back in the classrooms, educators worldwide have been alarmed with students accepting as valid almost everything posted on the Internet. Our Northwestern Minnesota university campus became a leader in helping students realize greater access to information requires greater evaluation of information validity.

Owen Williams, director of library services at UM Crookston, created a website for the Minnesota Coconut Growers Association about a dozen years ago that drives home the point.

It alleges that scientists have bred the coconut plant (Cocos Nucifera) with sugarbeets to create a new variety (Cocos Borealis Nucifera) hardy enough to survive Minnesota winters. While these Minnesota coconuts are smaller than their tropical cousins, the MCGA insists they are flavorful and that coconut husks can help enhance the flavor of lutefisk.

There are two hints in the paragraph above that the website is a hoax. Another giveaway for anyone who knows the Red River Valley climate is a photo of palm trees growing on the shores of Red Lake.

“It doesn’t take students long to figure this out and start smiling,” Williams said this past week. “Especially the farm boys.”

Not everyone is as acclimated or astute. Roxanne Aschittino, a former St. Paul librarian, was queried about the Minnesota coconuts recently while visiting friends in Arizona. If you don’t know Minnesota’s climate or lutefisk, the website looks like it could represent one of the endless number of associations that unite players in Minnesota’s food, agriculture and all other economic, environmental, recreational, professional and educational endeavors.

With genetic modification of plants becoming more commonplace, Williams said he might have to change commodities or make the site more outrageous. “Minnesota coconuts don’t seem to be as preposterous as before,” he said.

But not right away. Academic institutions around the globe now reference the Minnesota Coconut Growers along with the site and the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus as good examples of web hoaxes.

This is good preparation for students to learn how to discern validity of information and how to evaluate sources. Everyone else connected to the Internet faces the same challenge, which brings us back to associations like commodity organizations.

Loeslie says he’s tempted to join the coconut growers even though he doesn’t have a lot of trees on his Warren farm. None look like palm trees. He does appreciate associations.

Most farm organizations and commodity associations were started long before the Internet as a means of gathering, disseminating and evaluating information. This was often done in cooperation with the Extension Services jointly operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and our land grant research universities, such as the University of Minnesota and its branch campuses and research stations.

Now, Loeslie said, associations are more important for filtering information for accuracy and germaneness to economic, environmental or other interests. “We’re swamped with information,” he said. Time and technology have changed the need and purposes of associations, but haven’t lessened their importance.

Our reliance on associations was first noted by French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville in his two-volume Democracy in America study of American society following his visits here in 1831-1932. One chapter, a treatise “On the Use That the Americans Make of Association in Civil Life,” showed Tocqueville’s fascination with how Americans formed associations for every purpose. Unlike the English at that time, he wrote, “…there is scarcely an undertaking so small that Americans do not unite for it.”

It was an astute observation of American life, to be sure. But it seems as important today as it was 180 years ago.

A whole new industry is being created as well-heeled special interests use disinformation and misinformation protected by the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission to work a leveraged buyout of America’s democracy. This might create jobs, but it’s not economic development; we will need associations to filter out the real from manufactured mythology.

On a positive note, Minnesota has become home to new citizens looking for ways to be entrepreneurial. They haven’t read Tocqueville. We can encourage more associations, including cooperatives, to help them pool resources and gain accurate and timely information.

That, to paraphrase a popular song of 70 years ago from Merv Griffin and Danny Kaye, might spur real economic development and make a “lovely bunch of coconuts.”

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