Farming Needs Addressed in Town Hall and Omnibus Agriculture Bill

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At a town hall meeting hosted by Land Stewardship Project on May 5 — as the agriculture committee prepared to roll out its omnibus bill — Rep. Samantha Vang (D–Brooklyn Center) and Sen. Aric Putnam (D–Saint Cloud) heard from a group of farmers about needs, and in most cases offered reassurances that those needs would be met in the proposed bill.

Sen. Aric Putnam and Rep. Samantha Vang, co-chairs of agriculture committee (photo from Rep. Vang’s Twitter feed)

Farmers Markets

Chaz Sandifer, of The new MPLS, indicated that she is the only Black owner of a farmers market of nearly 400 hosted around the state. She said it took three years simply to get through the paperwork required to expand access to customers in the EBT and SNAP programs. Her farmers market, she said, serves residents in proximity to Robbinsdale, Golden Valley, and New Hope, which just lost its dedicated market. “People shouldn’t have to leave their community to have easy access to food and wellness,” Sandifer added.

Sen. Putnam responded that “the more farmers markets the better. These are opportunities for people who don’t have access to larger markets to do what they need to do [to sell fresh produce]. Plus, it’s local. It’s in the community. It’s not just food. More often than not, there’s also opportunities for artisans and for music — they become community events. We need to get back to that with more state investment and commitment to local community spots where people are come together. I would like to see a proliferation of farmers markets in Greater Minnesota and regional community markets. The more we can invest in them, the better.”

Small Farm Support

Laura Frerichs is an organic vegetable farmer in Litchfield who helps beginning farmers get established and deal with climate resiliency. She advocated for giving more support to the farm-to-school program, especially supporting the value of a coordinator that helps local farmers succeed in the program.

Rep. Vang reiterated that the farm-to-schools programs is essential. “When we were in the divided legislature, I had to fight for funding for the farm to school. With the surplus, we have the ability to fund the agency,” she said.

Nick Olson, also a Litchfield farmer, added that the Minnesota Department of Agriculture also needs a climate resiliency coordinator: “Climate change is impacting specialty crop farmers especially hard. They are growing highly valuable crops without any access to crop insurance. Their margins are very tight. … The exciting part is these farmers see themselves as part of a climate change solution. They’re feeding local communities, local school districts, and being innovative on an annual basis to figure out how to make their farms more resilient.”

Funwi Tita, a farmer from Cameroon now living in Montrose, said his family started a vegetable farm to have access to African vegetables, “to be able to go back to our roots and [experience] the nostalgic feeling, living here, craving those things that mom used to cook. Even though we have challenges with weather and everything else, it’s working out. Not only for us, but for the greater community that is as hungry as we are.”

He applauded the support of Good Acres LEAFF program, which has helped to supply food shelves with fresh produce.

According to Hunger Solutions, food shelves in Minnesota had a record high number of visitors in 2022, with 5.5 million visits. Communities just east and north of the Twin Cities (Washington, Anoka, Sherburne Counties), and in north central Minnesota (Itasca and Beltrami Counties), saw the greatest increase in food shelf visits from the previous year, largely due to the increase in food prices since the pandemic.

Sen. Putnam said that food getting to markets is saturated with corporate power that complicates the system. Next year, he said, he wants to focus Senate agriculture work on anti-monopoly and antitrust work. “There is a bottleneck when it comes to getting livestock to market because of these corporate interests, with dangerous work conditions, decreasing the quality and access that we have.”

He has worked with community on legislation that creates opportunities to create halal meat processing plants and support small businesses to work with specific livestock “that is essential when you look at the future of Minnesota.” He said he will continue to find ways to support small meat processing plants to help get around larger corporate bad actors “and also increase access of livestock producers to new markets in more ethical, humane, and economically viable ways.”

Soil Health

Mike Seifert, a fourth-generation farmer near Jordan, talked about funding out of pocket experiments, including a seven-grain mix of grains grown together for feed. He said a no-till drill is essential, and they have been using a worn-out one he bought for $3,500 “because it was what we could afford. It’s only eight feed wide, so that’s a lot of passes across our fields to get done what we need to do. It’s critical for farmers like me on the smaller side of the spectrum to be able to have access to equipment so we can implement these practices efficiently and quickly. … I’m a firm believe that today’s cover crops can be tomorrow’s cash crops as we try to diversify away from monoculture crops like corn and soybeans. There’s a lot of opportunities for farmers if they can get their toes in the water to experiment.”

He said GPS guidance and variable rate fertilizer applications are good practices for furthering soil health, “but I don’t feel that is as impactful as getting a farmer able to convert to no-till practices or implement cover crops.”

Rep. Vang indicated that the Legacy Fund will invest heavily in soil health, more so than the omnibus agricultural bill, to support regenerative farming and diversification of crop rotations.

Sen. Putnam said the Senate agriculture committee did a tour of a few rural farms. “Kernza is an amazing plant. It blows my mind, when you look at the life-size depiction of the plants and the length of its root system. It is beautiful and fascinating.” He said soil health, with cover crops that also are marketable, is important.

Angela Dawson (Photo Sarah Whiting)

Marginalized Farmers

Forty Acres farmer Angela Dawson explained the difficulty, as a Black farmer, in accessing resources from government agencies that would have helped her develop farming sustainability “when my neighbors had the equipment, resources, and land that I could not access. I found out there are some systemic issues within agriculture that still need to be addressed.”

As a farmer in Central Minnesota, she said she is happy so many new and diverse leaders and problem solvers are representing agriculture in both houses of the legislature to help correct inequities. Dawson said fewer than 1 percent of farmers in Minnesota are Black, despite having the talent and abilities to do the work, “because of the barriers that have prevented us from being able to stay on farms. I’m thankful that I am able to have this conversation with you — something that my ancestors were not able to do, to be in a space where people would hear their voices and listen to their concerns.”

Dawson asked for support to regenerative farmers “who are staying true to traditions that help heal the land,” such as access to capital, land, and a down payment assistance program, as well as continuing to listen to statewide needs. “Because we don’t just want to get on the farm. We need to be able to stay on the farm.”

Sen. Putnam replied, “We’re dealing with structural historical inequity — problems that are inherited from the past.” He said these issues will get worse unless we handle them in three ways: 1) support emerging farmers with funding, 2) support the investment of the emerging farmers office, 3) talk more together about the issues. “I think as legislators, we have a responsibility not just for legislation, but for inspiring conversation, getting more people around the table to have more conversations. That’s not a substitute for structural change or for resources, but it’s an inherently important part of the overall package.”

He said one of the reasons he got into politics is to forward the argument that equity is not exclusively a city’s concern. “I’m an equity educator; I’ve been a professor at St. John’s for 20 years and I do equity work in the public schools. It’s important for us to realize that equity is not just about the cities — it’s about the whole state. It is an essential component of rural development.”

Rep. Vang said, “We don’t automatically think of an Asian woman or a Black woman as a farmer. As chair of the House Agriculture Committee, I represent farmers that have been left out. [Previously,] for many years I’ve been on the agriculture committee oftentimes the only woman of color. Now we have a growing diverse caucus that can really start looking at how we can address the inequities.”

She noted that in her first year as a representative, she was able to pass a bill that created the emerging farmers office. I’ve seen the need for it to have more staff because [one person] can’t do it all. Vang indicated she was looking forward to unveiling historic investments, “the largest investment that’s been made,” to support emerging farmers. “I’m excited to show that to the rest of the community.”

The legislative story on the final bill

Signed into law by Gov. Walz in May at a farm in Finlayson

Related Resources

Land Stewardship Project: 2023 Agriculture priorities

Comparison of House and Senate agriculture finance bills

Big River Farms

The Good Acre

Village Agricultural Cooperative

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

Minnesota Farmers Market Association

Naima Dhore: Food Sovereignty