After talking to Sarah at the Land Stewardship Project I was interested in following up some of the participants in small local farming that she had mentioned. However first, to broaden my view of agriculture in Minnesota I visited Gary Wertish from the Minnesota Farmers Union. In general terms the cropping farmers in Minnesota have had a good run in recent years and high land values reflect this. Underpinning this is the national crop insurance scheme, which has been successful, but has also changed the risk profile of farming to make cropping now less risky than producing livestock.
Discussion of farm beginnings with Gary highlighted the issues I heard at the LSP, which were that there is much work needed on succession planning and it is hard for any young farmer to secure lease land. Whilst there has been a lot of share-farming in the state in the past, this has mainly transitioned to cash rents. The decline of share-farming has been blamed on the increased certainty provided by cash rents and the stronger relationships and trust needed for share farming. As there are many more absentee landowners, these relationships are not as common and therefore cash rent is more appealing.
Whilst we discussed the situation in terms of broad-acre agriculture, when the conversation turned to beginner farmers the small-scale options invariably came up. Gary noted that the Community Supported Agriculture model is growing in popularity and appears to be sustainable. Gary mentioned the Hmong farmers as a good example of producers who have established themselves without a large land base. This group of immigrants came to the USA from near Laos in the 1960’s with farming heritage but no wealth. They established intensive horticultural operations on small plots and now supply about 60% of the produce for farmer’s market s in the Minneapolis area.
To follow up on this story I spoke to Lynn Hayes at the Farmers Legal Action Group (FLAG – based in St Paul) and Pakou Hang at the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA). Both are working with the small scale farmers who are producing food for sale in Minneapolis/St Paul and developed their farm businesses without access to large areas of land. Lynn noted that one of the most difficult issues for the Hmong farmers was that they could not secure leases for more than one year. This limited tenure meant they could not plan for the future of invest into crops that required a longer lead time. FLAG has had some success in securing longer leases for the Hmong farmers. Lynn noted that the work FLAG undertakes on leasing is mainly with these small scale farmers.
Pakou at HAFA also stated that this land access problem had been a hurdle for the Hmong farmers. The majority of the Hmong farmers are on 1-15 acres but have not been in a position to purchase the land. Pakou then told me about one of the Associations most successful initiatives, which involved HAFA finding an ‘angel’ investor to buy 150 acres of land which has then been leased out to 16 Hmong farmers on long-term leases. This gave the Hmong farmers the security of tenure they needed to invest in the land and in their businesses in order to produce certain higher value crops like strawberries. This sort of socially responsible investing was getting more publicity in the USA and I thought it would be a good fit for ethical managed funds.
Some of the lessons from the experiences of these small scale farmers will be applicable to broad acre farming, but I am also interested in it as a starting point for farmers who have neither the family inheritance to farm on a larger scale; nor the finance to develop a larger business. The entrepreneurial edge many of these businesses develop can be utilised by many much larger and more profitable farms.
Thanks very much to Pakou, Lynn and Gary for their time and for rounding out my understanding of agriculture in Minnesota.