The agriculture community in Minnesota will be heading toward some challenges in the years ahead, but also a lot of opportunities. Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap reviews the issues.
By Kevin Paap, President, Minnesota Farm Bureau
Congratulations on becoming the next governor of the state of Minnesota. During your campaign you traveled the state from north to south and east to west, and you heard from many that are involved in Minnesota agriculture. Although many of the issues facing agriculture today are federal and international in nature, as Minnesota’s governor you are in a position to have a significant impact on Minnesota agriculture at the state and local levels as well.
Within agriculture, we know that working together works. When a farmer or rancher experiences a disaster or is in need of help, the first to drive into the driveway are our neighbors. They are willing to do whatever it takes to get everyone back on their feet.
Farm Bureau looks forward to working together with you and your administration, too. Early, meaningful, and ongoing stakeholder involvement will hopefully be a cornerstone of your administration. As you build your administrative team, we would encourage you to reach out to stakeholders who will be working directly with you and your team. Look to us for advice on qualified individuals to serve in those roles.
We encourage you and your team to work tirelessly for all Minnesota farmers and ranchers regardless of their size, the management and production styles used, or the crops and animals they care for. Minnesota agriculture is home to some great innovators and entrepreneurs, individuals and families who are willing to invest their time, resources, and energy today and in the future to ensure the long-term sustainability of their farms and ranches. We need a state government that supports our efforts and most importantly realizes that a one-size, statewide approach does not meet our needs. Spur-of-the moment announcements on major policy initiatives have not served agriculture or state government well in the past. The many challenges facing agriculture are best addressed with flexible approaches that recognize regional and local differences.
We have some challenges but also a lot of opportunities in Minnesota agriculture.
We’re a trading powerhouse: In Minnesota and around our nation, farmers and ranchers produce more than we can use. We are the fourth largest agriculture exporting state in the U.S. In 2016, Minnesota exported $7.1 billion worth of agriculture and food products, nearly one-third of the state’s total merchandise exports. While much of the trade discussions are occurring on the national and international level, the state of Minnesota is also involved, taking the lead in heading up delegations that include farmers and ranchers to various countries to establish positive trading relationships. Getting to know our trading partners on a face-to-face basis will pay dividends in the future.
We’re business managers: Minnesota is home to our leading-edge Farm Business Management program. Farm business management professionals work one on one with farmers and ranchers, providing assistance in managing their finances, helping with marketing the crops and animals they care for, and both short- and long-term planning. Continued support for these efforts from the state of Minnesota is critical to our generational sustainability.
Agriculture is innovating: Precision agriculture is an excellent example of the continual improvement occurring in agriculture. It enables us to be more precise in tillage, planting, fertilizer application, crop protection product placement, and harvesting. Livestock producers can continuously monitor their animals to ensure they receive maximum care and comfort. As our next governor, your understanding and support of the innovations and technologies being implemented in agriculture today and into the future is critically important.
High cost of property taxes: One of the biggest economic challenges facing Minnesota farmers and ranchers is the high cost of property taxes. Education funding is important to everyone, but the current system of funding new school buildings is not equitable. In some school districts where the majority of the property tax base is agricultural land, farmers’ and ranchers’ property tax bills are up to ten times higher than their city neighbors when it comes to paying for school buildings. How to equitably fund the cost of new school buildings remains a significant ongoing challenge.
We need a reliable and efficient transportation system: A reliable and efficient transportation system is essential for our rural economy to survive and thrive. Not only are roads and bridges important, but we also rely on railroads to deliver our inputs and help us export our products to our river and Great Lakes ports. Our Mississippi River system is one of the most affordable, environmentally friendly, and safest modes of moving products in the world. A “fix-it-as-it-fails” strategy for our roads, bridges, railways, ports, and locks and dams does not work. You and your administration’s leadership are critical to ensuring our transportation system is reliable and efficient, maintaining and increasing the competitiveness of Minnesota agriculture.
The challenge of access to health care and health insurance: Another significant challenge facing Minnesota farm and ranch families and all self-employed individuals is the rising cost and decreasing availability of health care insurance. No doubt in your travels on the campaign trail you heard many first-hand stories of the financial hardship this is causing families. While the solutions are not easy or readily apparent, this challenge is not going away and needs to be a focus of your administration.
There is inadequate or non-existent insurance coverage for mental health services. Farm and ranch families typically have high deductibles, so essentially paying for therapy is an out-of-pocket expense for the family. In these times of low commodity prices and reduced farm income, therapy would be deemed a luxury.
Lack of mental health providers in rural communities presents a real challenge. Some people have to drive four hours each way to get to a therapy appointment. Virtual therapy helps in eliminating some of these barriers; however, not everyone in the rural communities has the broadband to access and sustain a virtual therapy session.
Stigma and shame surrounding admitting the need for mental health care presents another challenge. There is still a significant stigma in rural communities regarding depression and being hospitalized for a mental health diagnosis. One person said, “Nobody brings you a casserole when you get home from the psych hospital.”
Much like the cost and availability of affordable health insurance, the solutions for assisting people dealing with mental health issues is not simple or readily apparent. Seeking positive long-term solutions needs to be a focus of your administration.
Regulation: Minnesota farmers and ranchers deal with many State of Minnesota rules and regulations on a daily basis. We need regulatory and permitting processes that are transparent, consistent, accountable, non-duplicative, and cost-effective. Regional and local adaptability and flexibility must be a top priority in Minnesota’s regulatory regime.
Competition for a finite resource: There are 26 million acres of farmland in Minnesota, 51 percent of the total land area of the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s 2017 numbers. Of the 26 million acres of land constituting farms, about 20 million acres are in crops, while most of the other 6 million acres is in conservation programs, forest, grassland, or wetlands.
There are continuous demands from some quarters for more wildlife habitat or to take land out of agriculture production for various wants and desires. At the same time, with an improving economy, the potential for losing more farmland to business and residential development is real. We are not manufacturing more land, but still, many interests, including farmers and ranchers, are competing for a finite resource. As governor, how you deal with these competing interests is important.
You will undoubtedly hear about the loss of acres in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The story does not end here. You need to look at the myriad federal, state, and local programs available to take farmland land out of production either through easement programs, many of them perpetual (forever), or fee title purchases. In addition, the state of Minnesota owns millions of acres, many set aside for wildlife habitat. An honest discussion by you and your administration of the future cost of managing those lands needs to occur.
The State of Minnesota and nonprofit organizations have spent tens of millions of dollars in fee title land purchases or permanent easements for hunting and habitat purposes. These taxpayer funds are made available on an annual basis from the Outdoor Heritage Fund. We ask that you look at all aspects of public land ownership and not make public policy decisions based just on what is happening within one program area.
As the next governor of Minnesota, you will be governor to all Minnesotans, and Minnesota farmers and ranchers stand ready to work with you and your administration on the opportunities and challenges of today and tomorrow. We are ready and willing to come to the table for important public policy discussions and development and implementation of positive solutions. We wish you the best in your role as the next Governor of the great state of Minnesota, and we look forward to a productive working relationship.
President, Minnesota Farm Bureau
Kevin Paap serves as president of the board of directors of Minnesota Farm Bureau and is also a lifelong Blue Earth County farmer.