Dan Sparks: Addressing needs of the farming community
Senate Report by Dan Sparks
Minnesota is home to over 26 million acres of farmland, with over 73,000 farms currently in operation. In 2016, we exported a total of $7.1 billion in agricultural products, making us the fourth largest agricultural exporting state in the country. In total, our agricultural output was $16.8 billion, making Minnesota fifth in the nation in total agriculture production. The farmers who are working every day in every corner of the state are powering our economy and helping all of us succeed.
At the same time, farmers and the agricultural community face many unique challenges that other workers and industries might not. Inclement weather can provide tremendous difficulties, our trading partners could enact tariffs that hurt exports or federal policy can change that would hurt farmers ability to plan accordingly. On top of these concerns, farming remains a very dangerous job, with farmers being maimed or killed in accidents every year.
Together, these challenges put our farmers and their families under considerable strain. Understandably, many farmers are faced with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. One of our biggest priorities at the Legislature this year is in expanding the resources and support available to farmers and their families for stress and mental health.
Currently, the Department of Agriculture has several resources in place to help farmers — resources we should expand this year. One effort is to bring on more mental health counselors to offer free services in connection with University of Minnesota Extension. Right now, there is only one counselor responsible for covering the whole state, an impossible job for only one person. We are working in a bipartisan way to put more funding towards hiring additional counselors who will be able to answer more calls and spend more time with farmers who may be facing difficulties.
I’m also proud to be a co-author on a bill that provides increased funding for legal services for farmers. The bill provides a $100,000 grant to Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG), a nonprofit law center dedicated to providing legal services and support to family farmers and their communities to help keep family farmers on the land. FLAG provides essential legal service and it’s important that we make sure farmers have access to their support.
As we work to craft a budget to fund essential state services, my colleagues and I are working to put the needs of farmers first, and I believe these pieces of legislation are steps in the right direction. It remains early in the process, but we will work to move these through the committee process and I believe we can get the funding they need in 2019. These are also only the first steps in the process and I encourage farmers to reach out to me office with other issues and needs that can help ensure farmers have the resources and support they need.
Dan Sparks of Austin is the District 27 senator.