The past is the present, according to a report released this month by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The theme: support the new farmer.
Six listening and discussion sessions were held September through December with the goal of identifying barriers for emerging farmers, those completely new to farming and farmers outside traditional state and federal agriculture support programs.
According to Patrice Bailey, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, those identifying as emerging farmers felt invisible. Recurring concerns included access to land, discrimination, cost of health insurance, education/training and profitability of local farms.
Karen Johnson, University of Minnesota Extension educator for Meeker and McLeod counties, agreed that the general findings applied to the local area.
The report identified five main concerns and discussed how they might be addressed.
Access to land
Farming is expensive, especially for young farmers without credit history.
Money and access to capital were the biggest issues for emerging farmers, because while land prices increased over the decade, revenue stayed the same. With limited revenue growth, farmers struggled acquiring land for various reasons, including land prices, real estate listings, land quality and distance to markets.
“Any time we’re talking about multi-million dollar or million dollar lending opportunities, people want a high level of collateral,” said Jeff Miller, dean of instruction for technical programs at Ridgewater College, “and an emerging farmer doesn’t have that, so obviously that’s a challenge.”
To help emerging farmers, Meeker and McLeod counties have farm service agencies with low-interest loans.
“(These loans) make it a little bit easier for some farmers to get into … or at least expand their businesses or do some stuff to expand their farming operation,” Johnson said.
Johnson said resources for helping were still being developed.
“It’s still a learning process, I think, for everybody as we’re building these different types of markets,” she said.
Some farmers admitted caution in selling land to immigrant farmers for two main reasons: fear of upsetting neighbors and the possibility an immigrant farmer could use different farming techniques on the land.
Biases exist, and according to an anonymous statement listed in the report, these social issues aren’t going away.
“Centuries of injustice against people of color and indigenous communities render their access to land even more difficult as they suffer from a lack of wealth building that centuries of white people have had,” read the comment. “Of course they can’t invest in land without capital.”
With a 12.9 percent disability rate, farming can be dangerous. It was no surprise health care proved a top barrier for young farmers, according to the report, because it can be difficult to transition to a public market.
With an unpredictable annual income, plans vary for different reasons. There also was a decrease in rural health clinics, which limited options for choosing clinics, health services and specialty doctors in coverage.
This was concerning given the rise in mental health issues identified in the report. Lean years when growing seasons become more difficult and trade commodities for products are harder to sell can drag farmers down.
“People are struggling right now because they’ve had some tough growing years,” Miller said, “so it’s really concerning.”
Matt Fitzgerald of Glencoe, co-founder of the Central Minnesota Young Farmers Coalition and a young farmer himself, agreed that finding health care was challenging for people he knew, but admitted he had difficulty relating to the report as a white, male farmer.
Education and training
Experience is important in the agriculture industry, Miller said, especially early, even before beginning post-secondary education. He said fifth and sixth grade was good time to start learning, because relationships formed could play a role in the success of new farmers.
As is true with any career path, wider networks for young farmers lead to more opportunities for entering the agriculture industry, Miller said.
“The networking for emerging farmers is going to be as important as the product that they’re going to grow or the service as farmers that they’re going to provide,” said Miller.
Fitzgerald suggested apprenticeship programs as a possible solution.
“This would be kind of a state-level program that might be able to be executed through several technical and community colleges,” he said.
Profitability was harder to predict, because a lot depended on products and what emerging farmers planned to produce. Fitzgerald cited hops as an example.
“If you’re raising hops for beer there’s not a futures market,” he said. “There’s not a universally accepted source for pricing.”
Revenue depended on market demand.
“Do you decide as a farm to … only sell at the farmers market in Hutchinson for a lower price, or do I get up at 4 a.m. and drive to the Minneapolis Farmers Market and do … 30 percent more?”
To offset uncertainty, community-supported agriculture, when farmer’s sell crop access to local communities in membership shares, was used.
What wasn’t hard to predict was why larger, corporate farms were succeeding: Instead of looking at farming from a “we need to grow more” perspective, they spend time looking at balance sheets and cash flows, according to Miller.
Miller summarized the new way of corporate farming this way: “More money will be made sitting behind a desk than will be sitting behind a steering wheel.”
Overall, Johnson was optimistic the findings would encourage young farmers.
“The report has a good overview of what’s going on across Minnesota,” she said. “They’ve brought to life some of those opportunities that do need to be addressed to help further cultivate this expanded interest in getting started.”
Fitzgerald was happy to see the concerns of young farmers addressed.
“I definitely commend Commissioner Bailey and a process that was inclusive,” he said. “They put a lot of effort into going across the state.
“It’s done a good job of collecting stories, experiences and some data. Now we can go to the Legislature and say, ‘This is what’s happening out in the countryside, these are the barriers that exist!’”