Why Minnesota legislators are so worried about the state’s farmers

REUTERS/Jim Young
The push to address the issue of mental health among farmers, in particular, was infused with a sense of urgency this week after lawmakers learned of two farmer suicides.

Concern over the mounting strain farmers feel due to current economic conditions is coloring much of the discussion about rural focused legislation at the Minnesota Capitol.

Members of the House Agriculture and Food Policy and Finance committee have spent much of the session so far focused on bills that would address several issues affecting the financial and mental health of farmers in Greater Minnesota. And during a hearing last week, after Gov. Tim Walz unveiled his $49.5 billion budget, Andrea Vaubel, deputy commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, walked through a series of proposals put forth by the governor to specifically help the state’s farmers.

The efforts come as many Minnesota farmers cope with challenges not seen since the 1980s, including years of earning less on their crops and products; the impact of trade disputes and climate change; and questions of whom to hand over farms to when they retire.

“It would be nice to see more money,” said Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, chair of the House Ag committee. She added that while Walz’s budget sets the right priorities, it misses a couple of issues legislators will want to address, given the depth of the current ag industry crisis and the importance of the industry in Minnesota. “People need to understand how important ag is to the total economy of the state.”

Another shot at funding mental health resources

The push to address the issue of mental health among farmers, in particular, was infused with a sense of urgency this week after lawmakers learned of two farmer suicides. “We all know there’s a need to do something and to do something quickly,” Poppe said Thursday during the committee meeting. “We’ve had some recent incidents in the farming community that cause us great concern. The time is now.”

The state of Minnesota currently has just one counselor tasked with helping farmers. Funding for more counselors was part of the omnibus bill that then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed last year.

Walz proposed $450,000 for rural mental health over the next two years, which includes funding for a second counselor. Committee members have already endorsed House File 232, which would fund two more counselors and other related services for the next two years. On Thursday, the committee amended the bill to include another $100,000 so the state could add funding now instead of waiting until the next fiscal year, which starts in July. The House Ways and Means Committee advanced the bill Monday.

The amendment takes money budgeted for Agriculture Growth Research and Innovation grants for 2019 and disperses it for a few different purposes, including $55,000 to give the state’s lone rural mental health counselor a raise and to hire a second counselor. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture would also get $30,000 to coordinate marketing and training around farmer mental health and another $15,000 for the Minnesota Farm Advocates program, which helps farmers with mediation and lender negotiations.

Weeks before the governor released his proposed budget, the House ag committee also considered a bill funding a grant to the Farmers’ Legal Action Group: a nonprofit public interest law firm that has worked with farmers facing financial hardship since the last farm crisis. Executive Director Scott Carlson told committee members FLAG works to keep farmers on their land. They reach out to farmers to tell them about public programs that will help them sustain their operation, and sometimes represent farmers in legal matters.

In an interview, Carlson said the situation now facing the state’s farmers isn’t as bad as the farm crisis in ’80s  — yet — but that FLAG is preparing for things to get worse. “I’m very concerned as we get a little closer to spring, more farmers than in the past will be denied operating loans,” he said. “What kind of crisis will we have on our hands?”

Finding ways around a crisis

In all, the governor’s proposed budget includes $30.8 million for agriculture. Among other things, it would give farmers access to low-cost health insurance coverage, which would bring relief to farm families struggling to pay between $25,000 and $35,000 in annual premiums, MDA Commissioner Thom Petersen said. “We see a lot of support for that going forward. I think there’s a lot of good pieces in there.”

Walz has proposed other changes to MDA’s budget, including a boost in funding for industry-specific programs that give farmers access to expanding markets for Minnesota crops; that help growers to pivot to higher value crops; and money to help shield farmers from the more unpredictable aspects of growing crops, like pests and invasive plants.

In meetings with lawmakers, farmers say they want help addressing the underlying causes of their financial reality. “One of the things we also find out is farmers are not only resilient but they’re very innovative,” said Rep. Tim Miller, R Prinsburg. “The farmers I know in the area  — they’re kind of keeping their heads down because things are tough. They’re excited about their opportunities. That’s what excites me. The people we have farming in Minnesota know how to get this done. If there’s anything we need to do as a state, as policy makers, we need to make sure we equip them and enable them to do the stuff that they know how to do and not get in their way.”

Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/25/2019 - 12:14 pm.

    If you want the evil bureaucrats in Saint Paul to stop cramming things down your throats, don’t ask evil bureaucrats in Saint Paul for help.

    Don’t elect small government legislators to office and expect government intervention. That sort of thing just creates dependency. Or so I’m told.

    • Submitted by Dave Carlson on 02/25/2019 - 03:00 pm.

      Let’s see… more dollars for more mental health counselors and legal aid for farmers, more dollars to cover low-cost health insurance for farmers, funding for better broadband access, plus “a boost in funding for industry-specific programs that give farmers access to expanding markets for Minnesota crops; that help growers to pivot to higher value crops; and money to help shield farmers from the more unpredictable aspects of growing crops, like pests and invasive plants.” That doesn’t sound very free market hands-off small government philosophy to me, it sounds more like the compassion that is typically put forth by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. I am all for helping rural family farmers but if they are electing those who vote and act against their best interests and welfare, and bemoan similar subsidies and programs to help their urban counterparts, then it is tempting to just let them get what they get.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 03/03/2019 - 11:02 am.

      Exactly. And don’t ask Washington for a Soviet style bailout when the President they elected imparts tariffs which destroy farmer’s ability to sell their crop.

  2. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 02/25/2019 - 12:17 pm.

    Hemp farming and marketing! more profitable than many other crops.

    • Submitted by Tom Karas on 02/28/2019 - 11:37 am.

      My industry has made hundreds of MN farmers giddy with the per-acre revenue we deliver. My industry provides about $1,000 per acre per year for 20 years,,, guaranteed! Yet my industry has to fight Republicans all day long to get more access. My industry? You guessed it – solar energy.

  3. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 02/25/2019 - 12:26 pm.

    Didn’t Donald’s dithering on trade deficits create the financial crisis that our farmers face? He allocated Billions to fix the problem he created, how about we get some of that money before the state starts blowing money on a fake crisis these farmers voted for? Before MY tax dollars go to any farmer I want to know if the plan on voting for more trade wars, if they do, then they should suffer the consequences of their decision. I shouldn’t have to pay for it.

    • Submitted by Greg Smith on 02/25/2019 - 01:44 pm.

      you realize that
      A.Not every one in rural Minnesota is a farmer
      B. Not every farmer votes Republican
      C..this crisis started before Trump.was elected?

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/25/2019 - 01:53 pm.

        And it has worsened under Don Trump.

      • Submitted by John Deitering on 02/25/2019 - 02:48 pm.

        Not everyone in rural Minnesota is a farmer, but almost everyone in rural Minnesota depends on Agriculture.
        Not every farmer votes Republican, but a clear majority voted for Trump.
        This crisis did indeed start before Trump was elected, but Trump made it even worse.

      • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 02/25/2019 - 08:12 pm.

        The article and my comment were both about farmers.
        As has been pointed out, enough of them vote Republican to elect Republicans to represent them. Walz was a bit of an anomaly.
        There is always a crisis in the farming community, but again as has been pointed out, Trump exacerbated it. China imported 98% less US soy beans this year. I doubt whatever band-aid the state can put on that will be big enough to fix it.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/25/2019 - 01:54 pm.

      Yes, why are they looking to government to solve their problems?

  4. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/25/2019 - 03:10 pm.

    Get govt out of the markets. Why are Federal milk marketing orders still in place? The govt at all levels has turned farming into another welfare system with all these regulations and programs.

    And get off this tariff nonsense. Tariffs are needed if you want to keep your standard of living. The left loves to harp on low wages here but crew foul when tariffs are used to help the slave labor that makes all their iPhones and other cheap Chinese junk.

  5. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 02/25/2019 - 07:34 pm.

    Today, China agreed to buy 10 million metric tons of US (includes MN) soybeans.

    That ain’t peanuts.

    • Submitted by Richard Callahan on 02/26/2019 - 09:48 am.

      10 billion metric tons is about $3.5 billion right? About half of the soybean subsidy the government paid farmers last year?

      This doesn’t sound like much to me.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/26/2019 - 10:03 am.

      From talkbusiness.net 15 hours ago: “To this point in the growing season, about 26 million metric tons would have been sold in a typical year, but only about 7.6 million metric tons have been sold, according to USDA figures.”

      If you want to call that a win, I guess that’s to be expected in the everybody gets a trophy era. In the profit making world, I call that a loss.

      Last summer China was importing an average of 30 US tons of soybeans each week. Then it dropped to less than 1.5 US tons.

      One metric ton = one US ton.

      So much winning, I can’t tale it any more.

  6. Submitted by Bob Johnson on 02/26/2019 - 02:36 pm.

    At this moment, I pay twice as much for a gallon of milk as a gallon of gas.

    Farmers aren’t the ones making the money, it’s everyone in between the producer and the retail customer.

    Gas is refined 1,000 miles away, but milk is produced in my backyard.

    Farmers don’t control the market, corporations and politicians do. There is no free market, but there certainly is a profit market.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/26/2019 - 03:06 pm.

      If you live in the Twin Cities, your gas is refined in Rosemount or Saint Paul Park, largely from Canadian crude.

      One big difference between the price of gas and that of milk is that gas is a bulk purchase. The labor and packing costs of gas are a lot less than for milk sold in one gallon (or smaller) containers.

      Other than being liquids, comparing the two is mostly meaningless from an economic perspective.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/26/2019 - 04:29 pm.

      Twice as much? You are paying too much for milk. Or you have to tell me where you get your gas. I paid about 15 percent more for milk this week.

      Also, Mr. Phelan’s point about how gas and milk are sold is spot on.

  7. Submitted by Sally Sorensen on 02/26/2019 - 04:55 pm.

    When did those farmer suicides take place? What evidence was presented that they were caused by economic stress? Did those farmers lack health insurance? Why provide free mental health counseling to one occupational class if those farm owners and operators have health insurance? Did the reporter here even look in the claims about the farmer suicides? Doesn’t seem like any reporter in Minnesota even asks.

    And please, Minnesota media: quit reporting about this legislation as addressing “rural mental health care.” It doesn’t address the needs of all rural residents. Instead, it’s for one occupation (and doesn’t cover employees at farms). According to the latest Census of Agriculture (2012), just over 102,000 farmers live in Minnesota. A lot more people live in rural Minnesota than that. What exactly makes the press so lazy in reporting about this issue?

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/26/2019 - 07:20 pm.

    Not to worry. The Republicans these farmers elected in the Senate will never let this big spending big govment plan get off the ground.

    I used to worry about farmers and rural Minnesota… until they decided to throw a hand grenade into my government by the name of Donald Trump and attack my values and transit systems. I wish them well now, but I’m have a hard time making myself get concerned these days. It looks like their hand grenade landed back in their own laps… funny how that happens. Maybe we should put the hand grenades away and get back to running the state with intelligence and compassion?

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/26/2019 - 10:10 pm.

      When those farmers turn the key .. you’ll worry and notice. No food coming to your local stores would have every city in America in full blown riots within 3 days, max. You seem to forget, rural people make things for a living .. .city people make nothing. You need those farmers a lot more than they need you.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/27/2019 - 08:31 am.

        “city people make nothing.”

        What farm grew your computer?

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/27/2019 - 09:48 am.

        Dude, you’re not paying attention… what’s killing the farmers is the collapse of EXPORTS, the food on MY table by and large isn’t coming from fields that under 4 feet of snow right now. We’ll always have something to eat, and we can afford to buy it.

        But here’s the thing… farmers need to realize that people like me have been supporting them for decades. Urban liberals have ALWAYS sought to push out whatever aid and funding we can to rural areas in need, and we’ve NEVER complained about paying for it.

        Republican like Mr. Barnes and their divisive attack politics have only damaged and jeopardized decades of good will and compassion.

        Republicans don’t know how to represent constituents because they don’t really believe elections are expression of democracy, they’re simply pathways to power. This is why they can’t govern, they’re not interested in governing, they just wan’t to impose their will on society. So at a time when Farmers need more assistance than they have since the Great Depression, the people they vote for are dedicated to eliminating and dismantling that assistance. That’s what small govmint is all about. This is why it took so long to pass a farm bill, and the bill that passed isn’t that great for farmers.

        And it isn’t just about Trump. Republicans have screwing rural MN one way or another for over a decade. The Pawlenty era was one long episode of accounting gimmicks that screwed rural MN in every way from infrastructure to schools. Some towns had to disband their police departments because they could no longer afford them. Who’s going fight Walz’s budget now? Who’s putting the breaks on rural relief? It’s NOT going to be urban liberals. It’s NEVER been urban liberals, it’s ALWAYS been Republicans putting the breaks on rural spending. Even when Republicans divert “more” money to roads and bridges, they make sure it’s still not enough money to deliver results.

        So when you see Republicans pretending to be the champions of farmers now… you can clearly see that with champions like that, they don’t need enemies.

        But at the end of the day all these “independent” champions of personal responsibility that farmers pretend to be will have to face the fact that when they went to the ballot box, they put a Fascist in the Oval Office. They were more worried about whether or not I want to marry my boyfriend instead of my girlfriend, and whether or not someone else is having an abortion. They don’t want me to have my choo choo’s even if they’re NOT paying for them. And all of this was more important to them than whether a billionaire con-man would REALLY fight for the little guy. Whatever.

        If you want to attack me, fine, I can’t stop you. But if you must be my enemy I can be yours to. If you want me to fight for MY interests exclusively… I can do that. I’d rather not, it’s not what I’ve been doing, but if that’s the way it has to be, I can live with it if I have to. It might be a good time (We can only hope it’s not too late) for farmers to ask themselves whether or not they want to follow Republicans down that road.

      • Submitted by David Lundeen on 03/03/2019 - 11:06 am.

        Not so. It’s called globalized trade. When those farmers aren’t selling their crops, you’ll see how a loyal a hungry dog really is.

Leave a Reply