Minnesota's Ellison, Petersen hear stories from the farm crisis

According to the Land Stewardship Project, Minnesota farmers are looking at an economic crisis reaching its sixth year.

Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture Thom Petersen, left, and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison address the Land Stewardship Project Farm Crisis Forum held in Mankato on Feb. 29, 2020. (Noah Fish / Agweek)

MANKATO, Minn. โ€” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Thom Petersen were in Mankato Feb. 29 to hear from farmers and members of the Land Stewardship Project on how they can help resolve the farm crisis.

According to the Land Stewardship Project, Minnesota farmers are looking at an economic crisis reaching its sixth year. Farms are unable to bring in enough income to cover the costs of planting crops and raising livestock.

The median farm income for U.S. farm households was negative $1,533 in 2018, and 70% of the total income of farm families comes from off-farm sources, according to LSP.

The root causes of the problem are that farmers are not getting a fair price for their goods; corporate monopolies and cooperatives are asserting power over their members; health care is unaffordable.

Statements from the farm

The forum kicked off with statements from farmers across the state.


Jim Vanderpol, who grows crops and raises livestock at Pastures a Plenty Farm near Kerkhoven in western Minnesota, spoke on his memories from the 1980s farm crisis.

"We had people die in the mid-'80s, Vanderpool said. "We had farmers committing suicide and bankers getting ambushed.

"We don't need those kinds of things again."

Madonna Sellner, who farms dairy with her family in Sleepy Eye, said she hopes one of her three grandchildren will want to farm one day. Right now, that's looking to be unlikely.

"Our bills are killing us," Sellner said. "With the profit we make off the dairy, there's little left to raise our family."

She said that implement dealers are charging more than $100 an hour to fix farm equipment, and her husband and son work 15-hour days to make what works out to be around $8 an hour.

Sellner said that last year for the first time in their farm's history, a loan was taken out to put crops in the ground. This year, 10% interest will be added to the same type of loan.

"Our talented young farmers are being driven out by big corporations, land investors and greedy neighbors who don't believe in sharing our resources with each other," Sellner said.


Commissioner with experience

"We would talk about it as an administration, and I would talk about it with legislators over the last year, if this is a crisis," Petersen said. "And I would always say, Yes, it is a crisis, for most and many people this past year."

Petersen became ag commissioner one year after state average farm income hit $26,000, its lowest point in 23 years. Farm income has since risen slightly, but Petersen said a lot of that is due to Market Facilitation Program payments.

As someone who's in charge of the state's farm advocate program and who served as president on the board for The Farmers' Legal Action Group before becoming commissioner, nothing from Saturday's forum was a surprise to Petersen.

He said he comes to the situation after having "fought with the banks for many years to save our farm and lender mediation program, to save our advocate program and to grow those programs."

Growing the Farm Advocate Program is at the top of LSP's list for legislators.

Petersen said the Minnesota Legislature has increased funding for the program to specifically address the crisis.

"But I'll warn you, there is a fatigue on that," he said of legislators who will likely say funding was already increased last year and the year before. "So it's important that people in this room visit with your legislators and tell them the need is there. You have to share that story with them."

Petersen said he is also keeping a close eye on farm bankruptcies.


"People will say, 'we only have 30 bankruptcies,' and have 68,000 farms in Minnesota," Petersen said. "But by the way, we went from 73,000 farms five years ago to 68,000 today."

He said Minnesota has moved into the top five states in the nation for farm bankruptcies, and attorneys have told Petersen the number of "close-to" bankruptcies is the "highest they've ever seen".

Ally in the state's AG

"I just think as attorney general, I need to be here, listening, learning and sharing my ideas so that we can make the most of our small and medium-sized farm economy," said Keith Ellison, who said it was his second or third meeting about the farm crisis in the last few weeks.

Ellison said his mother was raised on a farm in Louisiana, on land still being farmed today, so he had pride in the topic and identified with the people at the forum in Mankato.

But the attorney general said since he's not an expert on the topic, his goal is to be in touch with people who are.

"It's good for me to be here," he said.

Action needs to be taken to halt the market concentration in agribusiness, Ellison said.

He said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue's comments this past fall that American farms need to get bigger to survive were the "antithesis" of what the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts, and "all of our antitrust law" say.


"Our antitrust law says are supposed to support competition and make sure there are a large number of buyers and sellers," Ellison said.

What can be done from his position is to "deconcentrate markets, stand against mergers, and push against things like price-fixing and uncompetitive product practices."

"Promote more competition and stop the monopolization," Ellison said.

When asked if he thinks the state is doing enough to help the cause right now, Ellison said, "I don't think we're doing enough.

"The will is there to do a lot more, but we need advocates and groups like the Land Stewardship Project to really help reset our priorities," Ellison said.

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