Farmers taking action, exploring changes

By: 
Jordan Gerard

As a follow up to the first farmer roundtable meeting held earlier this winter, another meeting was held to talk about breaking down barriers and taking the next steps.

It was hosted on Wednesday morning, May 29, at Trinity Lutheran Church. The last of Wold’s strawberry crop that survived the hailstorm last year were served with shortcake and whip cream. 

As a preface to the meeting, the Rev. Elizabeth Hermeier read a note from Lara Wold Mendez about the berries, “These are the last of the berries from the day of the storm. It hailed and was windy for about 15 minutes, bringing ruin and destroying our berries. I went into panic mode and went to see if the berries were OK. Some were untouched, others were only OK. I decided to salvage some and picked for hours. We froze them and they’ve sort of multiplied into jam, smoothies and now here. These berries are more special to us. We appreciated less than perfect berries including small ones and odd shaped ones. It was life-changing.”

And eventually in the meeting, the discussion turned to alternative crops, ideas and ways for farmers to keep their lifestyle going.

Hermeier also compiled a booklet of resources for farmers that includes local resources such as Workforce Development, Sustainable Farming Association and more; agricultural alternatives; Extension office resources; resources to help with stress; and podcasts, videos and articles of interest. 

Copies of those are available by contacting Houston County Economic Development Authority (EDA) Director Allison Wagner at allison.wagner@cedausa.com or 507-458-2492. The booklet will also be available online soon, most likely on the Houston County EDA website.

She also noted while talking to a family member, there’s more that the land can do for farmers besides just farming.

“We were at a barn on a farm that had been rented out for parties, weddings, or what have you,” she said. “A lot of farmers rent their land to hunters who pay if they don’t have family that hunts. It opened my eyes to what this land can do for us when it doesn’t do what we want it to do.”

A new group in Houston County called Driftless Grown has also formed and the purpose is to connect farmers with other farmers in regional southeast Minnesota. 

The group is on Facebook and can be used for a number of things, such as farmers looking for temporary help, getting festivals together and farm tours, Wagner said. 

That group is also applying for an $18,000 grant from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) to expand. 

They also plan to host a festival where locally grown products can be showcased and be available for sale.

In that way and others, communication with farmers has already been opened, and the group present at the May 29 meeting hopes more farmers will get involved.

“A lot of people say they want to network and they feel lonely,” Wagner added. “This is a good way to bring farmers together.”

Also taking place since the last meeting is Workforce Development Business Liaison Dee Slinde working on a grant to get a funding stream that will help farmers who have been dislocated due to them selling off their farm or livestock.

Essentially, farmers who have sold off their farm or large amounts of equipment or livestock can be identified as a dislocated worker, which means they can get supporting funds to be retrained for another career.

Work available to local farmers off the farm for extra income is also still available. It’s especially helpful with recent rainy days and forecasted rain amounts.

Value added

The group also tackled the hot button topic of value added, which for different farmers can mean different things. 

Bonnie Haugen of the Grazing Apprenticeship said local value added is where farmers should go.

“It doesn’t make sense for someone to go into something unless they know where the market is,” she said. “We need constant education to the public. The more we can get them to buy local, the better it all is.”

Haugen added that new farmers should have a sort of “one-stop shop” to help them get started. 

Wagner said the EDA can help on that front by identifying individual farmers’ needs.

“I am going to do everything I can to help them find markets,” she said. “We don’t want to say ‘do this,’ because farming is uncertain. We’re going to try to support you any way we can.”

She also mentioned that the EDA no longer only supports towns and cities, as perhaps previously perceived. 

“I want to keep people working in Houston County,” she said. 

Houston County Commissioner Fred Arnold agreed and said people are starting to get aware that they are not the traditional EDA that only cares about towns.

Farm business management

Extension Educator for Fillmore and Houston counties Mike Cruse raised the question of how to better farm business management.

Scott Bingham said farmers need more income so they don’t owe more money every year.

“It’s not making the money today like it was years ago, and I see my farmers going backwards,” he said. “Farmers are getting more debt every year. There’s not enough money in what they’re doing.”

Riverland Community College Interim Director of Center for Ag and Food Science Dan Hoffman said farming has not generated more than three percent return on investment. It doesn’t work well when you borrow money at 5.5%, he added.

He added farmers don’t have to feel helpless in the current farm crisis.

“There are things we can do, like bringing outside resources in, direct marketing, social media,” he said. “A family just has to look at options that are right for that family within the farming business.”

Barriers

What’s stopping farmers from getting to resources?

Pride, fear and tradition. 

“It’s what we’ve always been doing. We overproduce crops because we’re good at [farming],” Houston County Commissioner Eric Johnson said. “At the risk of going into another endeavor, we still have bills and debt to pay at the end of the day. It’s the fear factor.”

Endeavors include alternative crops or going organic, finding different ways to market the product.

The hemp pilot program is a good example of an alternative crop, as the demand for hemp products like clothes and toilet paper grows. 

However, the cost to ship the product to the processing facility is what hurts the most. If there were a regional facility, it would cost less to ship.

In addition, other barriers to the hemp pilot program are that it’s highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and on state levels.

“Multiple applications, background checks and a general invasion of privacy are things farmers don’t usually want,” Cruse said. “It’s a level of investment and opening up of yourself.”

Speaking of farmers opening up, the group hopes more farmers will participate in the next conversation and start using resources if they need help.

Wagner spoke to Ted Matthews, a Minnesota Rural Mental Health counselor, who said in order to get farmers coming to meetings and using resources, they have to be the ones to decide if they want it.

“That person needs to be able to say they need some help. Farming is stressful because of the unknown factors like the weather and markets,” she said. “For farmers, farming is a way of life, not just a job or career. They grew up doing this and their parents did it and their parents before them.”

Cruse agreed and said you have to meet the farmers on their terms, which means time spent with them. 

“It’s a lot of footwork. We don’t have the feet to do the work right now,” he added. 

Haugen added the conversation and narrative needs to be changed, but in some ways, it already has. 

“Change is constant, so why not look for a better change than what I am in now?” she said. “We really need to change the narrative of the land, so no one is scared to come for help.”

Wagner added more farmers have reached out to her and other resources since the initial meeting.

“Talk to us, come to us. We’d like people to come before they’re in a desperate situation,” she said. “We’ll help them out in a desperate situation too.”

Arnold said farmers are in a better position than we were 10 to 50 years ago to do things because there’s better communication if we use it.

“Communication is so much quicker and we have resources that are reaching out that we did not have 50 years ago,” he said. 

What’s more is opportunities are available now that were not previously available to farmers, such as specialty marketing or direct marketing. He spoke of a farmer near Stewartville who sells shrimp to businesses in Rochester. 

“It seems off the wall, but direct marketing beef is not off the wall. That’s very doable,” he said.

Next steps

The group said they would like to hear from outside resources for marketing, other farmers who have found a niche or specialty, such as Katie Wiste, who raises goats and makes goat cheese.  There’s also a new butcher shop coming to Houston.

Johnson said conventional farmers will still be around, but they need to go toward marketing.

“It’s key to keeping your head above water these days,” he said. “I’m going to a meeting today with my marketing person. It’s someone with a second opinion.”

Cruse added all farmers don’t need to switch to conventional or organic or other type of farming, they just need to find a way to make money and keep the land healthy.

Nettle Valley Farm owner Dayna Burtness also suggested inviting Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston) and Senator Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) to the conversation to “give us an opportunity to fight for us” and push for farming initiatives.

Slinde mentioned Workforce Development encourages young people who are interested in farming to sign up for their internship program.

The organization will pay the youth’s wages and write up a training plan with the farmer. Workforce’s insurance will also cover liability for the young intern. 

That program is also useful for young adults who have barriers to employment, such as those on the autism spectrum or those who have had a touch with criminal justice. Federal programs also protect the farmer if something were to happen.

“If people are willing to give those people an opportunity, that would help,” she said. “The labor shortage is real.”

After the training is complete, the person could move onto other programs like the Grazing Apprenticeship program. Eventually that person would have enough knowledge to run their own farm or work on another farm.

Resources

Here are a few local and state resources that can help get you started if you’re a farmer in need. See a complete list in the booklet created by Hermeier.

Copies of those are available by contacting Houston County Economic Development Authority (EDA) Director Allison Wagner at allison.wagner@cedausa.com or 507-458-2492. Houston County EDA – https://houstoncountymn.com. “Our goal is to get to know our farmers, develop plans based on their individual interests and needs and help them adapt so they can be successful.”

Houston County Extension Office – 507-725-5807 or mnext-houston@umn.edu.

Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline – 833-600-2670. Free, confidential, 24/7. “Need help finding a confidential financial or legal advisor? Feeling alone, sad or worried and need a listening ear? Call us.”