Facing farming challenges with new ideas: Roundtable discussion talks solutions

By : 
Jordan Gerard

Brainstorming solutions to the current farm financial crisis was just one of the features of the farmer roundtable meeting on March 26 at RockFilter Distillery.

Other results included networking between current farmers, soon-to-be-retired farmers, businesses, economic development authorities (Spring Grove and Houston County), the University of Minnesota Extension Office for Fillmore and Houston counties and many more resources.

Houston County EDA Director Allison Wagner said the EDA wants to tackle the issue and “do anything we can to help.

“Thanks for the work you do on your farm every day,” she added. Growing up on a farm herself, she saw challenges firsthand. Many of the business representatives also know how tough farming can be.

Identified challenges were mental health, passing the farms onto future generations of farming, collecting income off the farm, and health insurance, low prices for crops and dairy, thinking outside of traditional farming and corporate agricultural.

The group split into smaller groups to tackle the challenges and discuss them thoroughly.

Mental health

Extension Educator Mike Cruse said the office offers free financial guidance and resources for farmers who are struggling. 

The office has also been working on providing mental health support for farmers.

“We want to have a really good conversation about what triggers people to have suicidal thoughts,” he said. 

Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, the Rev. Elizabeth Hermeier, said sometimes Scandinavian heritages have a “fear that we don’t want to intrude,” which can keep people from asking if a friend is OK or offering support.

“There’s some pride and shame that go along with it,” she said.

Lanesboro farmer Robert Knutson said he’s a semi-retired farmer who looks forward to passing on the farm to his son and grandson, but the current farm crisis has him worried.

“I went through the farm crisis in the ‘80s. It was not fun,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure farmers are going through.”

He added thoughts of suicide were on his mind too during that period.

“Being a private person doesn’t get you anywhere,” Knutson added.

A group of farmers, businesspersons and those interested in farming have been meeting monthly at Ivy Grove Cafe to socialize and discuss farming. 

Anyone is welcome to join the monthly chats. Contact Courtney Bergey at courtney.bergey@cedausa.com or 507-251-9272.

Future generations

The discussion also centered on how to bring future generations of farmers into the game.

Fillmore County farmer Carol Thompson said future farmers are often born into farming or “win the lottery” to keep farming.

“I know of three individual kids raised on the farm. It runs through their blood, and they would be very good at it,” she said, “but it’s not in the works. And they don’t want to work anywhere else but a farm.”

Transitioning farms to generations can often take years to do, as there is much to learn and much to finance through.

The group also wondered about the state of 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA). 

Participation rates have declined in the last few years, mostly due to the number of activities kids are involved in. There are also fewer kids in families and fewer opportunities to connect with farms.

“It’s not a priority anymore,” Thompson said. “Kids have a limited amount of time. Everything revolves around sports.”

She also mentioned that St. Charles School District had a program set up by their FFA chapter to connect kids with animals. The school bought lambs for kids that were interested in showing the animals. 

The lambs resided on a farm and kids were able to go out to the farm to take care of them. Essentially, it bridged a gap between students and FFA.

Dee Slinde of Workforce Development said she’s seen many farmers getting retrained for another career.

Growing up on a farm that is going through financial problems is tough for kids. Those kids also see their friends with easier jobs and weekends off.

“I had a young farmhand who grew up on a dairy farm his whole life watching everyone struggle,” she said. “Now he’s getting retrained to become a cement mason. He’s already lined up for a $29 an hour job. It’s hard to do mason work, but no harder than being a dairy farmer. 

“But there goes one more 20-something that thought about being a farmer and won’t be anymore.”

However, there is hope for future generations. 

Bonnie Haugen of Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship told the larger group about how future farmers can get started in farming.

Growing up on a dairy farm herself, she said, “I’m doing what I can to bring in the next generation of dairy farmers.”

The program is like a regular apprenticeship, but with dairy farming. Many states including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa have already joined the program.

Aspiring farmers fill out an apprentice profile, then established farmers (called “master grazers”) can contact them. 

If the apprentice and grazer is a good match, the apprentice’s education can begin on the farm. An education coordinator works with both parties to make sure the education goes well.

By the end of 4,000 hours, the apprentice should have the skills, knowledge and farm training to be able to farm on their own or farm for someone else, Haugen said. Apprenticeships often take two years or eight seasons.

The apprentices should be able to get beginning farmer loans from the FSA office to start their farm. If they choose to, the master grazer could also pass their farm onto the apprentice.

Finances

Planting prices are low, which means in order for a farmer to plant their crops, they may need to get a loan from the bank. Knutson said some farmers might not be able to do that, nor to plant again.

He added the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), established in 1985 by the Farm Service Agency (FSA), pays farmers good payments.

According to the FSA’s website, farmers agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality in exchange for a yearly rental payment.

Contracts are often 10 to 15 years in length. The long-term goal of the program is to re-establish land cover to improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and reduce loss of wildlife habitat, the website said. 

Knutson added a lot of people participate in the program.

Thompson said a lot of people have bought farms and put marginal land in the CRP, which also attracts hunters.

She added that much of the marginal land is land that should not have crops growing on it because it leads to too much production.

Commodity prices have been low for the past six years, along with a tough market, Spring Grove EDA Director Courtney Bergey said. Tariffs set by the Trump Administration are also affecting farmers.

Out of the box

“We need to think outside of the box,” Thompson said. “A lot of farmers think they only have to raise corn and beans.”

She and her husband found a niche market raising club lambs for show animals. Before that, they raised lambs for their kids to show in 4-H. They also worked off the farm to make extra income.

“We wanted to make sure our kids raised the animals they showed,” Thompson added. “We started with 12 sheep and we tried to improve every year. It took a lot of years.”

Now they sell club lambs all over the U.S. A good price for their product and a big investment has been the key for the success. But farmers are still struggling.

“Our small farmers are struggling,” she added. “We need to find something that works for our small farmers because big corporations and thousands of acres don’t contribute to our communities.”

Land is also bought up by bigger agricultural productions, sometimes at $10,000 an acre. Thompson asked what small farmer could compete with that.

Houston County farmer Yvonne Krogstad agreed and said alternative crops like gluten intolerance crops, prairie grasses and wheat could be planted.

Slinde mentioned she had a friend who started an industrial hemp farm in Lanesboro, as part of Minnesota’s pilot program for the crop, and is doing “financially well.”

The hemp has been re-classified from the Controlled Substances Act to an agricultural crop in which the pulp is used to create clothing, toilet paper, food, construction materials, jewelry and more.

It’s a crop that will grow in questionable land, or where traditional row crops may not grow, and it’s renewable. The market is very profitable right now, Slinde said.

Those in the pilot program are required to be licensed in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture Industrial Hemp Pilot Program to grow and process hemp in 2019, according to the website.

The pilot program will be in effect until the U.S. Department of Agricultural approves Minnesota’s plan.

However, the problem is not having enough production factories to produce the products from the crop.

Finally, there’s also another option for farmers to raise different produce and livestock. 

Niman Ranch is a farming operation based in California. They raise grass-fed organic cattle and have expanded their market all over the U.S.  

They contract with farmers to raise beef cows, hogs and lambs for the company. Currently, they have more than 720 family farmers and ranchers who raise livestock for them, according to their website.

Many of the farm’s products are used in restaurants around the U.S.

Niman Ranch is looking for producers in the Midwest to sign up. However, the closest pick-up station to get the animals to market station is in LeRoy.

“There is a lot of things out there that a small farmer can do if they’re open-minded and willing to give it a try,” Thompson said.

Income off the farm

Slinde told the group about a new smartphone app that is helping farmers find temporary work off the farm for extra income.

Workforce Development uses it to connect businesses to extra employees and farmers to extra income.

“If they have a week where it rains and they aren’t doing anything, they can use the app to find temporary jobs for that week,” she said. “I am aware that farmers work 80 hours a week and the banks are on their backs.”

The app has worked especially well in Steele County. At any given time, there are 20 open positions and a list of 170 possible candidates that have already went through orientation and not committed to full-time work. 

Because farmers have a wide range of skills, they would fit most industrial job descriptions, such as welding or fabricating. Businesses can rely on farmers for those skills and work ethic.

Slinde said for every 10 jobs available, there are six people able to fill them, but still four jobs that go unfilled. 

“There’s a huge deficit of workers that we need. Businesses are scrambling to find workers,” she said. “With the app, businesses can tap into a previously untapped market of candidates.”

It’s flexible employment that fills jobs for businesses and provides cash inflow for farmers. Farmers can still manage their farms with flexible employment.

Farmers are also not classified as dislocated workers because there is not a group of 50 or more from one single business that have lost work.

Slinde also mentioned there are farmers who are transitioning out of farming into other careers. Workforce Development is also able to help them find classes and new careers.

As for health insurance, Slinde said employers don’t need to provide health insurance until the employee hits a certain number of hours, which many farmers in Steele County are doing since they’ve worked temporary jobs.

Many farmers do take the insurance because they pay high deductibles on their farm insurance, since farming is considered a dangerous job.

“Employers would love farmers working for them because they have a good work ethic and many skills,” Slinde said. 

Resources

Overall, the meeting produced a network of resources available to farmers in Houston and Fillmore counties. 

Though there could be certainly more issues than what were discussed, the bulk of challenges seemed less daunting after the discussion.

Both EDAs (Spring Grove and Houston County) can help farmers out with pointing them in the right direction.

The University of Minnesota Extension and the Houston County Economic Development Authority in partnership with the Spring Grove Economic Development Authority hosted the event.

Houston County EDA Director Allison Wagner: contact allison.wagner@cedausa.com.

Spring Grove EDA Director Courtney Bergey: contact courtney.bergey@cedausa.com.

Workforce Development Business Liaison for Fillmore and Houston counties Dee Slinde: 507-724-5231 or deeslinde@workforcedevelopmentinc.org.

Fillmore and Houston counties Extension Educator Mike Cruse: 507-765-3896 or mjcruse@umn.edu.

The Rev. Elizabeth Hermeier for spiritual guidance: trinitysr@springgrove.coop.

Niman Ranch: https://www.nimanranch.com

Minnesota Industrial Hemp Pilot Program: https://www.mda.state.mn.us/plants/hemp

Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship: https://www.dga-national.org

Stay tuned to the Herald for more stories about tackling the farm crisis and what people are doing around the area to combat it.