The future of farming in Minnesota is at a crossroads, and state officials want farmers to know they're listening.

That was the message at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's final Emerging Farmers Listening Session held Dec. 11 in Rochester.

The ag department held six sessions around the state in order to hear directly from farmers and ag professionals about the barriers emerging farmers face.

Led by Assistant Commissioner Patrice Bailey and Michael Birchard, associate vice president of equity and inclusion at Dakota County Technical College, last week's session also included Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.

"Our job is to listen to folks across the state in all four corners, and hear the barriers they are bumping up against to farm," said Flanagan. "And do everything we can to remove some of those barriers."

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She also said the state must acknowledge that people of color or indigenous farmers have a different and bigger set of barriers. According to 2017 census data, there were 985 non-white farm owners and 88,679 white farm operators in Minnesota.

"We want that number to grow," she said of non-white farm operators. "It's important to us that the agricultural industry reflects the community it seeks to represent."

Agronomist and farmer Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin has been operating farmland in Northfield, Minn., since 2007. He came to the session to further the word of the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, a group he leads, to the southeast region of the state. 

"I'm a farmer since birth," said Haslett-Marroquin, who started farming in Guatemala. 

If the listening sessions are taken seriously by the state, he said, they have "potential to change significant parts of the landscape." 

"I don't think I have ever been invited to speak and expose a lot of the challenges and opportunities in a systemic way like they are doing right now," he said. "I'm absolutely thrilled they are doing that. It's the only way to start bringing in the wisdom and other diversity that is laying in the ground that nobody has paid attention to." 

Haslett-Marroquin said the biggest barriers in southeast Minnesota are the lack of access to infrastructure, specifically processing, and land because with 90 percent of it belonging to farmers 65 and older. 

"That means they are really looking at cashing in on it," he said of older farmers. "That makes it very difficult for beginning farmers to purchase land." 

Still, his advice to emerging farmers is to "first define your vocation," whether it be animals, livestock, vegetables, perennial crops or something else. 

"Defining that is the most important thing, because you can't be good at everything," he said. 

Second, he says, identify the systems or build the systems to have the supply chain from the farm to the markets. 

"Most of the farmers that I see try to do it all — all the way to marketing and distribution, and that is a very difficult thing to do," said Haslett-Marroquin. "So building collective efforts to be able to build that infrastructure is the next important thing." 

He said once you have those two things, a successful operation can be built around them. 

Also at the listening session was Dayna Burtness-Nguyen, who runs a pastured pork farm with her husband in Spring Grove.

"I wanted to learn from other farmers and professionals in the field on what they're hearing and are concerned about," said Burtness-Nguyen. "I also wanted to share our experience."

The concern that Burtness-Nguyen wanted to bring to the table was not so much the barriers that emerging farmers face, but what the farm crisis is doing to all farmers.

"I didn't grow up on a farm, so I need other successful and healthy farm families on the land so I can learn from them and they can help me," said Burtness-Nguyen. "And right now, the farm crisis is hollowing out rural communities."

She said some of the problems can only be solved with big and bold solutions.

"Some of the folks who're in the room are people who have power, and will hopefully listen to farmers like me and my neighbors," she said.

Burtness-Nguyen said she was excited when Flanagan said she wanted to come visit her Spring Grove farm to learn about the operation and some of the concerns they and their neighbors have about water quality.

"There's always what people say -- then there's actions and follow-through," Burtness-Nguyen said. "And I think this is the first step to that, coming together with other farmers and making our voices heard."

During the listening session, Flanagan said she heard farmers express real commitment to the land and being good stewards.

"Nobody said I'm a farmer because I want to make a lot of money," said Flanagan. "Folks said I'm a farmer because I believe in this profession, I believe in the people and I want to give back to the community by providing."

She said in Rochester they also heard from farmers who want to do more, "take risks and expand crops they are growing or livestock they are raising."

"That's what we heard — people are ready to go, they just need a little bit of support," she said.