With a growing farm crisis gripping agriculture in Minnesota, many farmers and rural residents alike are organizing responses to fight back. On Thursday, January 9, the Land Stewardship projected hosted a Farm Crisis Community Forum at the Kilowatt Community Center in Granite Falls.
The event attracted scores of farmers, family members, local residents, and individuals working in other sectors impacted by agriculture. At the core of many conversations that evening was the role played by corporate agriculture and the squeezing out of small and medium sized farming operations (and in particular, family-based farms).
Few in agriculture have been left unaffected by the farm crisis. In 2018, median farm income for US farm households was a negative $1,533. In the past six years, over half of farmers and ranchers have lost money on their crops or herds, with larger operations more likely to generate profit at the expense of smaller ones. As the crisis worsens, more and more farmers turn to other sources of revenue, with 70% of the total income of farm families coming from off-farm sources. These individuals leave behind an increasingly centralized and corporatized farming industry.
For many who attended the event, a big attraction was learning about available resources for those struggling with the ongoing market downturn. An expert panel consisting of Farm Advocates, farm organizers, and University of Minnesota Extension staff touched on a wide range of subjects including financial tools, innovative sustainable farming practices, and mental health resources.
Deputy Director and Senior Staff Attorney for Farmers’ Legal Action Group Stephen Carpenter was one of the panelists at the event. “If it sounds like I’m being a downer,” he began, “it’s because things are down.” He lauded the work of LSP, calling the group a “model organization” that is “grassroots oriented.”
Carpenter discussed the “credit squeeze” which he said is driving small operators out of business and devastating rural communities. He gave some advice on how to deal with the banks, noting that “I have nothing bad to say about creditors, but they will take everything.” He discussed how the foreclosure process works and also highlighted the importance of Farm Advocates in helping individuals navigate a complex web of choices. “The worst thing is to just ignore it and hope things will get better. They won’t.”
LSP Managing for Stewardship Organizer Robin Moore, who coordinated questions during the panel session, underscored the importance of people coming together during difficult times, saying that in the face of the current crisis, “building strong community is what’s going to hold us up.” She added that “what’s really effectives in our communities are our neighbors.”
Another highlight of the evening was the small group discussion and brainstorming session. Each table discussed resources available to farmers and steps they could take to try and address the crisis. Ideas that were floated included encouraging younger people to stay or move back to their communities, moving to more diverse crop rotations and ecologically sustainable farming practices, and promoting greater diversity in farming.
At the end of the event, LSP Policy Program Organizer Matthew Sheets gave a speech urging government action to alleviate the damage caused by the farm crisis. Among the action items Sheets addressed at the state level were strengthening the Minnesota Farm Advocates program to help farmers better understand their legal rights, make it easier for farmers to restructure their loans, place a moratorium on dairies over 1,000 animal units, and expand affordable healthcare for farmers and rural communities.
Sheets also laid out a series of demands for action at the Federal level. These demands included and end to corporate mega-mergers, creating a supply management system for grain with a loan rate at 95% of production costs, make it so that Federal farm subsidies should have payment limits and should be tied to stewardship of the land, enact country of origin labeling, and allow the Farm Service Agency to offer a 40-year fixed farmland loan.
These demands are encapsulated in a Land Stewardship Project petition which was passed around after the event. The petition can also be accessed online at https://landstewardshipproject.org/farmcrisispetition