The future of farming in Minnesota is at a crossroads, and state officials want farmers to know they're listening.
That was the message during the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's final Emerging Farmers Listening Session in Rochester on Wednesday at 125 Live.
MDA's goal with the sessions, emceed by Assistant Commissioner Patrice Bailey and Michael Birchard, associate vice president of equity and inclusion at Dakota County Technical College, is to hear directly from farmers and agricultural professionals about the barriers emerging farmers face, and to also "learn the complete story about farming in Minnesota".
In attendance on Wednesday was Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.
Flanagan said that she and Gov. Tim Walz thought it was important to be represented in Rochester at the listening session for the administration's goal of growing who has access to agriculture in Minnesota.
"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."
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 in Minnesota. There were 88,679 white farm operators in the state.
"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."
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 on Wednesday was not so much the barriers that emerging farmers such as herself are facing, but what the farm crisisi 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, which she thinks is possible with the current administration.
"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 their farm in Spring Grove, to learn about their operations 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.