UMN looks to aid struggling Minnesota farms

The past few years have been tough for many Minnesota farmers, agricultural experts say.

Illustrated by Hailee Schievelbein

Illustrated by Hailee Schievelbein

by Austen Macalus

With many Minnesota farmers facing additional stress amid an agricultural economic downturn this harvest season, a University of Minnesota Extension program offering free financial counseling aims to lend a hand.

Under the program, farmers can call Extension’s Farm Information Line to connect with retired agricultural financial and business experts, who provide one-on-one analysis and advice to struggling farmers. Experts talk with farmers about ways to ease financial stresses, including reorganizing business assets, restructuring debt and negotiating with lenders.

“The biggest thing is to help them figure out where they’re at financially,” said Kevin Klair, an agricultural economist with Extension, who helped start the program. “It’s mostly about exploring what options might be available.”

As farmers near the end of this year’s harvest, more are expected to utilize the counseling program, Klair said.

“The next several months — December, January, February, March — will be the months when [farmers] really have to analyze where they’re at, discuss with their lenders, see how they’re doing and what their options are,” he said.

Klair and others in Extension started the program over a year ago in response to growing concerns about farmers’ financial burdens. Since its start, the program has helped over a hundred farmers.

“We as an organization — along with various farm organizations and the Department of Agriculture here in the state — were getting the same indicators and the same clues that said we need to start addressing this and providing help and offering resources,” said Michael Schmitt, associate dean for Extension.

For many farmers the last few years have been increasingly difficult, Schmitt said. Across the country, net farm income has declined nearly 50 percent in the last four years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Schmitt said a variety of factors have hurt farmers in Minnesota, including low crop prices and poor weather during the planting and growing season.

“There certainly has been a lot of financial and emotional stress out there in agriculture,” said Kevin Paap, president of the of the Minnesota Farm Bureau.

Paap blamed some of the anxieties on the ongoing trade dispute, which significantly impacts agricultural products in Minnesota.

In July, China imposed retaliatory tariffs in response to the Trump Administration taxing Chinese imports. Tariffs on U.S. exports include a 25 percent tax on soybeans, Minnesota’s leading export. China is the largest importer of Minnesota soybeans, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

There are around 25,000 soybean farmers in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. Many of those farmers, Paap said, are facing the direct consequences of the trade dispute.

Soybean prices significantly declined after the tariffs took place, according to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

“Soybeans were significantly higher — over $9 on the [Chicago] Board of Trade — and they were at a profitable level for most farmers,” Paap said. “The soybeans we’re harvesting now this fall, or had harvested, we’re basically getting 2 dollars a bushel less than we had planned prior to the tariffs.”

Brad Hovel, a farmer in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, is supportive of the Trump Administration’s trade policy, but said the retaliatory tariffs are one of several factors adding to stress this year. Hovel recently finished harvesting soybeans, which he said happened later than usual this season due to the weather.

“This fall has been a bit of a struggle trying to get everything done,” he said.  “We’re having to trim as much as we can in certain places. It’s been a challenge.”

Hovel knows about Extension’s farm financial counseling. Although he hasn’t used the program, he said the Extension service is a great tool for many people in need of help.

However, Hovel said it can be difficult for farmers to open up and ask for help, even when they need it.

“Farmers are pretty proud people and I don’t know if they’d really tell their neighbors or friends if they’re having financial trouble or not,” Hovel said.

Schmitt said that financial stress can lead to mental health issues and negatively impact farmers’ families, especially when they don’t talk about problems with others.

“We are concerned when people don’t talk about their challenges with anybody, because they can’t get the help they need, they can’t get the advice they need,” he said.

The financial counseling program, which is private and confidential, is one way Extension is trying to help, Klair said.

The program is part of the mission of Extension, as well as the University at large, he said.

“We’ve had a long history of helping deliver education, resources and research to farmers,” he said. “So this is just a natural part of what we do at the University.”