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

The push to address the issue of mental health, in particular, has been infused with a sense of urgency after lawmakers in St. Paul recently learned of two farmer suicides.

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.
REUTERS/Jim Young

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.

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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.

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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.”