As farm income declines, optimism grows out of UMN

While farm income hits a historic low, UMN is teaching the state’s current and future farmers.

Bovine blood lab technician Keith Yorek poses for a portrait at the Dairy Cattle Teaching Research Center on the Saint Paul campus on Thursday, April 4. Yorek is a Grad Student in the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program.

Tony Saunders

Bovine blood lab technician Keith Yorek poses for a portrait at the Dairy Cattle Teaching Research Center on the Saint Paul campus on Thursday, April 4. Yorek is a Grad Student in the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program.

Dylan Anderson

Keith Yorek grew up on a dairy farm near Little Falls, Minnesota. In 2006, his parents had a plan: they would rent a barn down the road and put Yorek and his three siblings in charge of a herd of 35 cows. He was 10 years old at the time; his oldest brother was just 15.

“It was our responsibility to take care of them cows and look after them and feed them and milk them morning and night before and after school,” said Yorek, a graduate student in the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

The median income of Minnesota farms declined by 8 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to a study by University Extension, resulting in the lowest income in the 23 years the study has been conducted when adjusted for inflation. Experts blame lower prices, international trade issues and lower yields, among other concerns.

Yorek’s upbringing instilled in him a love of cows. Now, he wants to be a veterinarian and travel around to small family farms treating livestock.

“That would be my dream. We’ll see if it happens,” Yorek said. “A lot of these herds are going out of business.”

Dairy farmers’ median income declined by 65 percent last year, and Extension saw a 15 percent drop in dairy farms’ participation in the study as some herds were sold off.

University educators work with farmers in the field to improve efficiency and with students on campus to send the next generation back to the barn with new lessons.

“It’s a really challenging farm economy right now, and it’s widespread,” said Dale Nordquist, associate director of the University’s Center for Farm Financial Management. “All the major typical Minnesota commodity product[s] … are suffering from low prices.” 

The University’s veterinary medicine curriculum is diversifying, teaching Yorek and other students how to treat many different animals. Yorek said they emphasize consultation to help farmers see broader problems within herds.

Graduate student Taylor Homann’s passion for pigs inspired her to be a vet. She is going back to the veterinary clinic in her hometown of Pipestone, Minnesota after finishing school.

“Pig farming drives my hometown’s economy,” she said. “As a vet, you can be this expert and source of knowledge to help them.”

The median income for Minnesota pork producers declined 77 percent in 2018. Despite the decline, Homann is not fazed. Pork was at the top of the charts for agricultural industries in 2017.

“I am not worried about it at all,” she said. “This just happens to be the bottom of the trough.”

Homann is the swine vice president of the University’s Production Animal Medicine Club. She holds meetings where they discuss case studies and practice what they will do in the field.

“I don’t think we talked about health at all,” she said of a recent meeting. “It was about farming and how to help your farmers and how to be this wealth of knowledge on a bunch of things that vet school doesn’t teach us directly.”

Joleen Hadrich, associate professor and Extension economist, currently advises the next generation of farmers. She knows they will be going back to help their family farms deal with the changing realities of the agriculture industry. She always keeps their families in mind.

“Our farmers are resilient and they are nimble,” Hadrich said. “They’re figuring out ways to manage input costs so that they can keep more money as profit.”

Using historical data, Hadrich analyzes the effects of past decisions to better prepare farmers for the future of their changing industry.

She said the University faculty’s expertise “does not exist anyplace else in the country.”

“I think the research that will be coming out of the U over the next few years will be cutting edge,” Hadrich said. “We are creating the resource space to continue to have agriculture to be a big economic driver in the state.”

Nathan Hulinsky, an Extension educator focusing on business management, travels across Minnesota teaching groups of farmers about everything from marketing to risk management strategies.

His work advises farmers how to get the best price for their product, increasing profitability for farms statewide. He teaches classes about farm transition, helping them pass their business to the next generation and remain operational.

“We need these farms to continue to have Minnesota be a productive and efficient state,” Hulinsky said. “Everybody eats, so everybody need food. And where’s our food come from? The farmers. So keeping these farms in business is very important to me.”