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About the cover: Assistant Commissioner Whitney Place spent time at the Central Minnesota Farm Show conversing with many people. Central Minnesota Farm Show volunteer Ted Takala, St. Cloud, Minn., was among those who welcomed Place to the event. Photo by Andrea Johnson.

ST. CLOUD, Minn. – Traveling around Minnesota is an important part of Whitney Place’s job as Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture. It’s the best way to learn what is happening in farm country.

Recently, Place attended the Central Minnesota Farm Show at the St. Cloud River’s Edge Convention Center to talk with farmers.

“We know there has been a lot of challenges, especially facing farmers and our communities in the past couple of years,” she said. “We need to address the challenges that people are facing, but we also have to continue – even during these hard times – in seeking opportunities and taking advantage of those.”

Standing in for her boss, Ag Commissioner Thom Petersen, who was in Washington, D.C., Place presented a short program on the state of Minnesota agriculture and recent program activities in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA).

Minnesota is home to 68,500 farms, several Fortune 500 food and agriculture companies, many meat processing plants and thousands of farm-related businesses. Over 430,000 jobs in Minnesota are directly related to agriculture, and the ag sector has an economic impact of $112 billion annually, Place said.

The Gopher State ranks first in turkey production, sugarbeets and rye. Minnesota is second in pork production, third in pork processing, fourth in crop production and ag exports, and fifth in total ag production. The state ranks sixth in livestock production and eighth in number of certified organic farms.

Difficult years for Minnesota agriculture

Place had to go no further than to her own father’s farm to see the difficulties of 2019.

“My dad, who farms in southwestern Minnesota, was one of several farmers who did not plant anything,” she said, adding that it was troubling to see thousands of acres reported as prevented planting across the state.

Many areas saw record rainfall, and prices haven’t been that great. The average farm income in 2018 was $26,000 according to the Farm Business Management program, she added.

“The concern is that this is the fifth year in a row with low prices, and it’s taking a toll on any sort of savings or built-up wealth that these operations had,” she said.

Minnesota was losing a dairy a day at the end of 2018, and that was a great concern. So, the Minnesota Legislature passed a grant program to incentivize dairy farmers who enrolled in USDA’s Dairy Margin Coverage Program. Minnesota Milk Producers Association and other groups worked with MDA to set up the grant program. The MDA issued two cycles of payments, and the state is losing fewer dairies now than in late 2018, Place reported. Milk prices have thankfully improved, as well.

Another important project of MDA is adding more meat processing on the local level. Smaller livestock operators need access to meat processors to sell high quality livestock or meat locally. Through the Agricultural Growth, Research, and Innovation (AGRI) Program, MDA is working on meeting the regulatory and inspector requirements to equip local processors.

Place added that MDA has three missions: 1) ensure the integrity of the food supply; 2) regulate pesticides and fertilizer, as well as assure water quality; and 3) strengthen the ag economy.

As assistant commissioner, Place oversees the Pesticide and Fertilizer Management Division, the Plant Protection Division and Laboratory Services. She has a bachelor’s in Applied Plant Sciences and a master’s in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy from the University of Minnesota.

Among her accomplishments is serving as project coordinator for the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. The state has 845 producer participants that have certified 576,000 acres in this program.

“We know that farmers are the solution to water quality and to climate change issues,” she said.

The voluntary program is a whole farm site specific assessment of nutrient management and cropping systems. The MDA is now offering three certification endorsements – wildlife, soil health or integrated pest management.

“If you have different focuses on your farm, you’re able to talk about some of the practices that you do,” she said.

Industrial hemp also falls under Place’s direction. In December 2018, the Farm Bill defined industrial hemp as an agricultural crop and removed it from the controlled substances list. Hemp is open to interstate commerce and that allows hemp farmers to qualify for USDA programs like crop insurance.

Minnesota’s hemp farmers have increased from six growers planting 38 acres in 2016 to 343 growers planting over 8,000 acres of hemp in outdoor production, and 400,000 square feet indoors.

“The bottleneck for growing hemp for grain and fiber right now is the processing,” she said. “We’re trying to get some more processing opportunities for farmers in Minnesota.”

Place encourages farmers to talk with her about their farming challenges. She pointed out that Commissioner Petersen “came from a lobbying background,” so he’s used to farmers calling him with concerns that need fixing.

“He’s taken a bit of that here to the MDA,” she said. “We’re on lots of interagency groups, and that’s a huge part of our job in the Commissioner’s office.”

She encourages farmers to look for ways to help keep agriculture strong for generations to come. The MDA has increased their focus on recruiting emerging farmers. The average age of a Minnesota farmer in 2017 was 56 years. Farmers are mostly men and white.

Place says the state is going to need a lot of beginning farmers in the next 10-20 years. The MDA is working on removing barriers to entering farming, as some beginning farmers will not have traditional ag backgrounds.

Programs like Minnesota FarmLink brings together beginning farmers with retiring farmers and landowners that want to see the farm continue. An important item is the AGRI Beginning Farmer Farm Business Management scholarship program. Scholarships are available for up to 60 percent of tuition in a Minnesota Farm Business Management program.

A Beginning Farmer Tax Credit is also available that provides tax credits for the rent or sale of farmland or farm assets to beginning farmers. Tax credit incentives are available for land sellers, too. Grants and loan programs from the MDA can further help new farmers improve or expand their operations.

Place invites everyone to visit mda.state.mn.us/beginning-emerging-transitioning-farmers to learn more about these and many other programs.

“We need to keep our eye focused on the future and establishing this industry in Minnesota moving forward,” she said.