If we’re entering a typical year in Minnesota, some farmers will have spring plantings delayed and in some cases prevented by spring floods and wet fields before other farmers lose their crops from drought when blistering heat descends in mid summer.
This is the typical experience in Minnesota where climatic conditions differ greatly, north to south, over the state’s enormous land mass.
Large areas of northwest, west-central, the Twin Cities and southeastern Minnesota are already on notice from the National Weather Service and Army Corps of Engineers that spring floods are likely should warm weather cause a quick melt of the heavy snow cover.
Isolated crop disasters are an annual fact of farm life in Minnesota even when we close the year with record and near-record harvests – on average – for most of Minnesota agriculture.
Against this background, nonprofit groups and government agencies that support agriculture are busy trying to spread the word that government crop disaster programs have been improved and expanded to offer protection to greater numbers of Minnesota farmers.
For instance, the Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG) recently issued a new fact sheet on the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program (SURE) provisions of the 2008 federal farm program. This can be downloaded from FLAG’s website along with an existing book, Farmers’ Guide to Disaster Assistance, that explore all of the government’s safety net programs for crop production and income protection programs.
FLAG attorney Jill Krueger said the fact sheet attempts to explain exceptions that apply to limited resource farmers and ranchers, beginning farmers and ranchers, and farmers and ranchers “of color” that were included in the current federal farm program when it was written in 2008.
This is especially important for farmers in the metropolitan Twin Cities area who mostly grow vegetables that are sold at Farmers’ Markets, at vegetable stands and through community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. While some area growers are multi-generational farmers, a large number of area farmers are new residents of Minnesota – continuing a pattern of immigration and agriculture that predates statehood.
With new farmers come language problems and distrust of governments from “back home” experiences that make enrolling new citizens difficult in the federal programs, said Nigato Tadesse, an outreach program specialist with USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) in Minnesota.
For those reasons, FSA recently sponsored a fifth annual Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference at the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul with the Minnesota Food Association and the Association for the Advancement of Hmong Women. (Read an account of that meeting by Sheila Regan at the TC Daily Planet.)
All such groups that work with beginning, small-scale and disadvantaged farmers can access the entire crop disaster program details at FSA’s website. The completeness of these details, however, reveals how challenging compliance and qualifying can be for new Americans and people with English language difficulties.
Going forward, Minnesota communities, nonprofits and institutions that support agriculture and quality of life issues that include fresh fruit and vegetables face two major problems keeping agriculture healthy in metro areas and in adverse climate conditions.
First, from shortcomings of past farm programs, including historical experience and from neglect of basic table food crops, growers of major farm program crops such as corn and soybeans have a comparatively easier time accessing federal crop insurance and disaster programs. That is not true for new and small farmers who grow cauliflower and snap beans.
But that is changing. The new federal farm program is less biased against local vegetable and fruit producers. Programs to protect these table corps and the farm incomes they support are being developed even though qualifying for these programs remains complex.
State, local and nonprofit service providers will continually face challenges helping new farmers and new citizens with language and complexities of government programs. The history of Minnesota shows that agriculture production and the food industry are entry points for new citizens seeking opportunity or escape from troubled lands; a history that is likely to repeat itself in years and decades to come.
On top of that, metro area farmers still face major challenges finding land to farm, said Tadesse. State, local and University of Minnesota people have worked endlessly in recent decades to keep convenient metro area land open for vegetable production in Dakota County south of the Twin Cities and in Hennepin County to the west. That challenge increases each year with urban development, Tadesse said.
Meanwhile, people in Lake Elmo east of the Twin Cities in Washington County are making new and replacement land available for the coming year, he added. That will help, but it may not be a long-term solution to the farmland problem for a metro area that still prefers to expand out, rather than up, with commercial and residential development.