Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
October 2008 In uncertain times it is important to stay in touch with those who matter to you. That was the idea behind a series of listening sessions the Minnesota Department of Agriculture held around the state the last few months. From New Ulm to Willmar to Winona, and later Crookston, St. Cloud, Mankato and Worthington, we met with farmers, main street business operators, and others with a stake in the state's agriculture and food sector. We heard about many issues specific to individual communities or regions. For example, in Crookston we heard about concerns over the availability of diesel fuel for agricultural purposes. In Worthington, we heard about a desire for more processing infrastructure in support of the region's dairy producers. However, a number of consistent themes came through in all sessions. First, we heard that while Minnesota has made progress in creating a more farmer-friendly business climate, there is still work to be done. Farmers talked about the need at both the state and local levels for transparent, fair permitting processes that take into account the realities of 21st century farming. MDA's livestock development team has worked on these issues, and we will continue to do so. At a time when so many of our economic foundations have been shaken, we need to be mindful of the major role agriculture plays in our economy, and we need to treat this vital industry with the respect and fairness it deserves. Second, we heard 2008 has been good for some but not all parts of the agricultural economy. The high costs for fuel and other inputs held down profits in some cases. This is especially true for farmers who pre-purchased inputs when prices were high, thinking the trend would continue. There is a practical limit to how much impact a state agency like MDA can have on big-picture economic forces, but we can continue to work hard to make sure our market development programs produce meaningful results for various segments of our diversified agricultural economy. We may not have all our sectors thriving at the same time, but if we work hard to build long-term competitive ability in all sectors, we can have a healthy, diverse ag sector for years to come. Third, given all that has happened in the nation's finance sector, it is no surprise that we heard concerns about the availability of credit. Minnesota's agricultural lenders did not participate to the same extent in the sort of risky lending practices that led to our credit crisis, but this doesn't mean those lenders are immune from the effects of the problems elsewhere. The bottom line is that as farmers move into the winter number-crunching, there is great uncertainty and unease. MDA will be working to ensure Minnesota farmers have access to the credit they need, and we will be talking with St. Paul decision-makers to make sure they are aware of the ongoing needs of farmers and other small business operators in greater Minnesota. MDA will continue to hold listening sessions into 2009, because I am convinced those of us in government need to be in close touch with the citizens we serve, especially in these turbulent times. I want to thank those who participated in our recent sessions, and I look forward to talking with more of you in the months to come.