How agriculture is coping with this summer’s drought

Two people sell vegetables at a farmer's market.
Teng Yang and his wife, Amphon Thor, grow vegetables on 9 acres less than a half hour south of St. Paul.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Without enough water to feed livestock or keep soil moist, Minnesota farmers have been hit hard by the summer’s hot, dry conditions. Seventy-eight percent of the state is currently experiencing extreme drought conditions, and small farmers are weathering the drought with virtually no safety net.

Help is on the way: Earlier this month, Minnesota received $17.5 million in federal aid to mitigate the impact of climate change. Gov. Tim Walz says some of that will go to support farmers and ranchers.

But Thom Peterson, Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner, told guest host Chris Farrell that the state knows this aid package alone isn’t enough to keep farmers afloat and is considering any and all potential solutions.

“We’re looking at all of the above. Whether that’s a special session coming up here in September, whether it’s American Rescue Plan dollars, where can we get the dollars from to help these farmers, and what are some of the things that we can do to help move this situation?” Petersen said.

Petersen advised farmers to keep receipts and document losses so that they can be reimbursed if aid comes from the federal or state government.

Small farmers are pushing for more streamlined ways to get a piece of that pie.

“This year’s been incredibly hard on our smaller farmers, just because it was frost and drought and then the heat,” said Kathy Zeman, executive director of the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association and the owner of Simple Harvest Farm Organics.

“Many of our farmers are not going to farmers’ markets because of lack of produce,” said Janssen Hang, executive director and co-founder of the Hmong American Farmers Association.

Many aid programs for farmers are targeted at large, traditional crop and livestock farms. But there’s less infrastructure to support small farmers, especially those who rent the land they farm.

When small farmers do apply for aid, they often face documentation requirements that don’t make sense when compared to the realities of their operations, and they are sometimes treated like they aren’t “real” farmers, Zeman and Hang said.

“There’s no safety nets for micro-farmers,” Hang said.

“The only safety nets that we have are our neighbors,” Zeman added, highlighting how small farmers and other agriculture professionals in Minnesota have come together in the Local Food Producer Resilience Working Group to push for systemic change. “The system doesn’t fit us, and it needs to shift — and shift rapidly.”

Fifty percent of the vendors in the main farmers’ markets in the Twin Cities are Hmong farmers, Hang said. Zeman called for dollars to be shifted away from legacy aid programs to the younger, more diverse “future of Minnesota farming.”

What would such changes look like? Hang would like to see simplified support programs, along with greater diversity in government agencies to help overcome language barriers and other barriers to understanding for farmers.

Petersen recognized the need for greater flexibility in government programs, especially with climate change exacerbating the challenges faced by all farmers.

“Two years ago, we were in an extreme flood situation in the same areas we’re in an extreme drought … right now,” Petersen said. “We have to have programs that are more nimble, can adjust quickly.”

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