REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. - Between a nibble of corn ice cream and the sharing of Ole and Lena jokes, Gov. Mark Dayton Aug. 2 sweated his way through Farmfest, the traditional proving ground for politicians in agricultural Minnesota.
Just a few weeks after ending the longest state government shutdown in recent U.S. history, Dayton's outing came as he pivots from state crisis to calmer times.
As festivalgoers gathered to check out the latest in seeds, sprayers and silos, some offered the governor low-key encouragement but privately gave him incomplete marks.
"Hang in there," said Janet Lundebrek of Benson, president of First Security Bank, to the governor. Later she said: "It's not near over. This is going to be a real challenge until we get through the next two years."
With a stalled economy, an opposition Legislature and a new Washington debt deal that takes another chunk out of the state's federal funding, Dayton has his work cut out for him.
"It will be an exciting time to be able to focus on government reform and also on job creation," the governor said after making the rounds of Farmfest booths.
For those dependent on farms, these are pretty good times. Prices are up, and Farmfest vendors said farmers are kicking implement tires -- and buying.
But when talk turns from crop yields to politics, the mood darkens.
"Nothing goes forward ... too much arguing, too much bickering," said Roger Hauth of Springfield. Hauth works his church's food booth at Farmfest and raises beef cattle. He said Dayton is just a player in those intractable politics.
Others were willing to hand Dayton measures of blame and credit.
"I don't think he's strong enough," said Eugene Kerfelt of Wilmar. The agricultural equipment specialist said government has gotten "way too big," but he still believes Dayton "caved too soon" on the shutdown.
Roger Dolliff of Loretto paid Dayton a begrudging compliment.
"He's doing better than I thought," Dolliff said. But, he said, "my expectations weren't too high."
Dayton says he has largely moved past the budget wrangling that subsumed the Capitol and pushed the state into a 20-day shutdown last month.
"It is great now to be able to focus on the executive branch," Dayton said. The DFL governor said he plans to meet with each of his commissioners starting next week to hear their priorities and get everyone working on "how we can reform state government and make it more cost-effective."
Amid the steamy, sprawling cornfields of the 30-year-old trade show, Dayton chatted with visitors about his upcoming trade missions, the importance of agriculture to Minnesota and even talked a little pheasant hunting with a local radio station.
Well-wishers stopped to cheer him. "Don't give up," said Dennis Sjodin of Cambridge. "Keep trying," said Bill Frischmon of Hoffman.
The freshman governor remains a virtual unknown to some. As he walked the grounds, several people asked who Dayton was. He would spend the day reintroducing himself -- "Hi, I'm Mark" -- again and again. He even offered some his business card, an unusual accessory for a head of state, and to a select few, his home phone number.
"Any questions for me? Any advice? Good ideas?" the sometimes awkward Dayton asked a group of fresh-faced young "Pork Ambassadors." "I'm always looking for good ideas."