As the Emerging Farmers' Working Group got down to business, Minnesota Ag Commissioner Thom Petersen laid out the importance of the task at hand.
“We know that Minnesota’s agricultural economy benefits when everyone gets a fair shot to succeed in farming, and we know we have work to do to make that possible,” Petersen said.
The agenda for the first meeting between the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Emerging Farmers’ Working Group on Nov. 6 included discussion of bylaws and procedures as well as supportive remarks from some of the state's top officials.
The Emerging Farmers' Working Group, created in the 2020 Legislative Session to provide guidance to the MDA, includes 17 appointed farmers from throughout the state. The MDA defines emerging farmers as women, veterans, persons with disabilities, American Indian/Alaskan Native, communities of color, young and urban farmers.
“I’m excited about the trail-blazers and risk-takers who are lending their abilities and perspectives to this effort to make agriculture more inclusive,” Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said.
The MDA held six listening sessions throughout the state last year and used the findings to compile a legislative report, which recommended the creation of the working group.
The purpose of the Emerging Farmers' Working Group is to advise Petersen and the Legislature on the effectiveness of programs and initiatives meant to support emerging farmers in this state. Each year, Petersen is required to give an update on the working group's activities and recommendations to "the chairs and ranking minority members of the legislative committees and divisions with jurisdiction over agriculture."
Over 100 applications were reviewed by the ag commissioner's office, along with Shannon Kesner, MDA's tribal liaison, and Michael Birchard, associate vice president of diversity and inclusion at Dakota County Technical College.
At the working group's first meeting, Petersen opened the virtual gathering with his high hopes for the group, along with MDA's commitment to work with them and listen closely to their suggestions.
He also shared some caution, as the state is about to enter its fiscal year facing a $4.6 billion deficit for the next two years. He called the situation "scary" but nothing that he or the state of Minnesota hadn't gotten through before.
Several grants through the MDA would be available in the next few weeks, said Petersen, most of which will have an emphasis on BIPOC — or black, Indigenous and people of color — farmers. He said the MDA looks forward to the working group evaluating its grant programs and sharing ways to improve and expand.
Flanagan, who was at the listening sessions in 2019, also shared her excitement for the working group to be involved in the state's oversight of the ag industry. In an overwhelming time in the state with COVID-19 spikes, Flanagan said it was inspiring to "see something that is moving forward."
Flanagan said the group is a "giant step in the right direction" and falls in line with the overall goal by the administration under Gov. Tim Walz to provide opportunities to Minnesotans regardless of "race, ZIP code and income." Systemic barriers still stand in the way, and Flanagan said the pandemic has only amplified that.
"Right now, it is too difficult for women, veterans, people with disabilities and members from BIPOC communities to access the land and capital needed to start farming," Flanagan said. "This is one of the things that we can take real steps to change, and all of you are so important to that."
As an indigenous woman, Flanagan said she knows the everyday struggle of living in a system "not created by us or for us, but in many ways created to eliminate us". She expressed the state's commitment to working with community groups, grant makers, tribal governments, ag associations and elected officials to build a more equitable ag sector for the state.
"What you all are embarking on is not a small task, but it is absolutely what is needed," she said. "Turning a ship that has been headed in the same direction for 162 years is going to take some work."
Emerging Farmers' Working Group members
- Gina Aguilar, Hennepin County.
- Hannah Bernhardt, Pine County.
- Elizabeth Bryant, Rice County.
- Naima Dhore, Ramsey County.
- Jessika Greendeer, Washington County.
- Janssen Hang, Dakota County.
- Denise King, Anoka County.
- Lucas Kruse, Blue Earth County.
- Erika Legros, Carlton County.
- Moses Momanyi, Isanti County.
- Hindolo Pokawa, Hennepin County.
- Emily Reno, Otter Tail County.
- Sai Thao, Dakota County.
- Miah Ulysse, Ramsey County.
- Michael Walgrave, Rock County.
- Kaitlyn Walsh, Carlton County.
- Shelly Woods, Sibley County.