In February 2020, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) released a report about the barriers new and potential farmers face in Minnesota.
The 37-page legislative report, Emerging Farmers in Minnesota, focuses on addressing the concerns for the next generation of farmers in the state. It explores the following questions: who are emerging farmers, what are the barriers to entry, and what actions are Minnesota taking to support the future of agriculture in the state?
“As we talk about agriculture in Minnesota there are certain groups that are not part of that conversation,” says MDA’s Assistant Commissioner Patrice Bailey. “Those are the folks that really need to be part of that conversation as we continue to recognize agriculture as a staple of our country.”
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Minnesota currently ranks fifth nationally in terms of agricultural production and has 68,000 farms covering 25.5 million acres. The Emerging Farmers report calls out agriculture as a defining feature of the state claiming, “many Minnesotans feel connected to agriculture even if they themselves have no formal role in the industry.”
Along with this pride comes concern for the next generation of farmers. Three years ago the average age of a Minnesota farmer was 56.5 years old according to the Census of Agriculture. This statistic highlights the importance of farm transition and succession planning as well as the need to support the next generation of agricultural producers in the state.
“We are not seeing enough people joining the agriculture sector to sustain the foundational part of our economy,” says Ariel Kagan, strategy and innovation specialist for MDA and researcher for the Emerging Farmers report. “If we want Minnesota to be a place where anyone who wants to farm can farm then we need to be thinking about how we are going to support those folks and uplift them and bring them into this robust agricultural economy.”
The report, created by the MDA’s participation in six listening sessions around the state and via the Internet in 2019, engaged with more than 200 participants. The participant pool included service providers and educators as well as emerging, established and retired farmers.
The report defines “emerging farmers” as individuals entirely new to farming as well as generational farmers who have been outside the scope of traditional state and Federal agricultural support programs. It focuses on historically underserved communities including women, veterans, persons with disabilities, Native American/Alaska Native, communities of color, young and beginning farmers, and LGBTQ+ farmers.
Acknowledging these communities is essential to understanding agricultural opportunities available in Minnesota. Historically, laws, programs and institutions giving preference to white, male farmers impacted land ownership in the state. The current demographic of Minnesota’s principle farm operators is 99.16 percent white, while Minnesota’s general population is 84.1 percent white.
“This is just the beginning of a long process,” says Bailey. “I think what needs to happen in terms of emerging farmers is to recognize that emerging farmers don’t all look the same, they don’t always come from rural areas. There are a lot of emerging urban farmers as well.
The new report also provides insights and recommendations that aim to benefit all of Minnesota’s farmers. The state’s agricultural system relies heavily on established farmers to mentor and advocate for emerging farmers. Supporting emerging farmers can improve the overall ag sectors of Minnesota’s economy as well as providing pathways to building generational wealth and revitalizing rural communities.
During the creation of this report, MDA staff were able to identify 11 themes expressed by participants of the listening sessions. Areas of discussion covered financial barriers, discrimination, rural health care, availability of resources, climate change, and market access and infrastructure. Participants shared thoughts including “as an emerging farmer I’ve struggled to find farmland that I can afford near the markets I hope to sell to” and “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.”
One repeated concern related to access to resources. Participants noted that many farm service providers in Minnesota tend to focus their business on larger-scale commodity-based farms. While other emerging farmers are struggling to find culturally appropriate resources that support their farming practices and markets, such as locally grown kosher and halal meat.
There was also confusion and disappointment over the current education and training resources available for emerging farmers. Many participants expressed issues with educational resources that do not address the needs of a non-traditional farming businesses. Also, participants cited issues with the access and use of the Internet in rural Minnesota as a barrier\ to continuing education as well as e-commerce and marketing efforts.
The report concludes by laying out recommendations to support and cultivate emerging farmers in Minnesota. It starts by suggesting the creation of an Emerging Farmers Task Force to provide guidance to the Commissioner of Agriculture in the development of programs and initiatives, which began looking for participants in May 2020. Other recommendations include the translation of MDA training materials, incentives for farm services providers, and creation of grants that support emerging farmers.
The Emerging Farmers in Minnesota legislative report is available on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s website at www.mda.state.mn.us/report-addressing-future-farming-minnesota-released