In recent years, family farmers have experienced hardship not seen for generations. Historically low commodity prices, trade uncertainty and more frequent extreme weather events combined to result in huge losses. Then, a global pandemic swept over the world in a few short months.
We are facing an unprecedented public health crisis, and farmers are in increasingly dire straits. The integrity of our food system could be at risk if we do nothing to protect workers in processing plants and distribution hubs. South Dakota is home to the nation’s largest pork processing plant, and because the governor did not take this threat seriously or take immediate action to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Smithfield pork factory in Sioux Falls has shut its doors indefinitely. This is devastating for rural communities.
Minnesota is taking swift preventative actions to ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes made in South Dakota.
Continued economic uncertainty takes a heartbreaking toll on the mental health of farmers and their families. We know that stress created by natural disasters and financial problems already led to a spike in farmers who tragically took their own lives. As a result, the Minnesota Legislature took action to make sure farmers can get the help they need. The resources and programs we created are needed now more than ever as we confront the global pandemic with no end in sight.
For example, we increased the number of farm advocates to 10. These individuals provide one-on-one assistance through the Minnesota Farm Advocate Program for farmers who face crisis caused by either a natural disaster or financial problems.
Farm advocates understand the needs of agricultural families and communities. They are trained and experienced in agricultural lending practices, mediation, lender negotiation, farm programs, crisis counseling, disaster programs and in recognizing the need for legal and social services. Farm advocates have also developed a network of attorneys, accountants, human service professionals, educators, and other sources of information and services. Phone numbers for each farm advocate and their assigned region are listed at mda.state.mn.us.
The Legislature also provided funding to support the Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline (833-600-2670, ext. 1). The call center, based in the state, provides free, confidential services 24-7. Calls are answered by trained staff and volunteers. If you or someone you know is struggling with stress, anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts, please call this number.
Lastly, increased funding allowed the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to hire an additional mental health therapist who works with farmers throughout Minnesota at no cost and with no paperwork.
I am grateful for the important services these individuals are providing. Call Ted Matthews at 320-266-2390 and Monica McConkey at 218-280-7785.
Thanks to the cooperation and collaboration of many different people, Minnesota is in a better position to help farmers navigate the economic uncertainty we’re feeling right now.
There is more work to do, though. I invite you to contact me with your ideas and stories for how we can continue making improvements.
You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call my office and leave a voicemail at 651-296-4193.
Rep. Jeanne Poppe is chair of the Minnesota House Agriculture and Food Division.