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Closing the farm gate: Struggling farmers take emotional step to forge new career paths

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A woman poses with a dog on a trailer with hay.
Southeastern Minnesota resident Mary Lou Graf wants to keep farming, but tough market conditions are forcing her to explore other career options.
Courtesy of Mary Lou Graf

Mary Lou Graf wakes up almost every day knowing this certainty: It will be a long one. Her day could include juggling as many three jobs. Along with that are aches and pains brought on by recent knee replacement surgeries.

Her quest to achieve financial stability feels like it won’t end.

“I'm not saying I want to be a millionaire, I just want to make enough money to pay my bills every month,” Graf said.

A map of Hokah, Minn.
Hokah, Minn.
William Lager | MPR News

Graf, 53, lives on a dairy farm she once operated with her late husband in Hokah, a small community that rests near the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota. Her workday typically starts around 6 a.m. and can stretch as late as 8 p.m. In between are a variety of gigs that help her that cover the farm expenses she still has.

Depending on the season, she works at a landscaping business. Now that it’s fall, she has a part-time teaching job at a local school. She even sells Mary Kay cosmetics on the side. She returns home from those jobs to a string of chores to keep the farm going.

Graf married into a farming family. She and her husband had dreams of building their farm into a profitable venture that could pay off all their debt.

Her husband Daryl was killed in a farming accident 11 years ago. The collapse of the dairy market followed his death.

“Milk went from $22 down to $9 there in the early years he was gone. When you cut that in half, less than half, making ends meet, it just wasn't there,” Graf said.

Graf eventually had to sell nearly half of her herd, from 110 cows down to 68, and entertain the thought that most farmers hope to avoid: exploring other career options. Her situation is playing out at other farms in Minnesota, especially at dairy operations where low prices are forcing owners to consider other ways of bringing in income, even if it means a new career.

Writing on the wall

In southeastern Minnesota, where Graf lives, a program was recently launched to help struggling farm workers transition to different jobs. Allison Wagner, the director of the Economic Development Authority in Houston County, said it all started in late 2018 when her office received a stark warning from local banking leaders. The message was simple: 2019 wasn’t going to be a profitable year for farmers in that region, and many of them would probably be denied operating loans.

“We knew that we were going to have a crisis on our hands. We also knew we were going to have to try new things,” Wagner said.

That meant openly advertising to the agriculture community about resources for finding jobs off the farm. In a partnership with the nonprofit Workforce Development, Wagner’s office does various forms of outreach such as roundtable discussions. Through this outreach, farmers get free advice on everything from resume writing tips to interview preparation.

As word got out, program managers started hearing from people who wanted the free service. In the past year, roughly 30 farmers and their families have been helped out. The managers say these are clients who never really sought out this kind of help in the past.

“Farmers were saying things like, ‘Allison, I only know how to be a farmer. I’ve always been a farmer. I don’t know how to do anything but be a farmer,’” Wagner said.

Many skills that it takes to be a good farmer translate pretty easily to other vocations, like construction or bookkeeping.

A piece of farm equipment working in a field
One of Mary Lou Graf's sons helping on the family farm in Hokah, Minn.
Courtesy of Mary Lou Graf

Most of the work Graf has found though the program tends to be seasonal, leaving a lot of unknowns about the present and the future. Paying bills is still a problem.

“There isn't money there to buy $200 worth of groceries every month or gas money to run to town. It's still very, very tight.”

Still, Graf feels that she’s on a better bath toward prosperity. Graf said she can’t imagine where she would be without the program.

“I'd be pretty lost. They popped into my life at a time I just wasn't expecting anything to happen. They were very encouraging and inspiring — didn't downgrade you because you weren't making it on the farm.”

Bracing for more farmer exits

Those who oversee the program that helped Graf say they anticipate making more of these connections in the coming months. Jinny Reitmann, the executive director at Workforce Development, said the signs are there that this will continue.

“I live in a farming community, and my husband just went to an auction for another farm that closed. So we’re definitely gonna see a continued number of individuals seeking help,” Reitman said.

That anticipated wave of farmers stepping down from their tractors and jumping into new careers underscores a trend that’s been building for decades.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, total farm employment in Minnesota has shrunk from nearly 124,000 in 1988 to just under 75,000 in 2018.

Meanwhile, farm income continues to decline. According to data gathered by the University of Minnesota Extension and Minnesota State University at Mankato, Minnesota farms earned the lowest median farm income in 2018.

The reported net income last year was just over $26,000, down 8 percent from the previous year.

In Houston County, where Graf lives, farms reported a more than 50 percent decline in net income between 2012 and 2017, according to the most recent U.S.D.A Census.

As for the number of farms lost, Stearns County, in central Minnesota, has been among the hardest hit. The same Agriculture Census reported that Stearns lost more than 15 percent of its farms over the same period.

The emotional barrier

Mark Koehn of Holdingford, Minn. can relate to those struggles. He was a successful hog farmer in Stearns County from the early 1970s to the early ‘90s. Like Mary Lou Graf’s late husband, farming was in a family business.

“I started farming right out of high school. Started farming with my parents,” Koehn said.

A map of Holdingford, Minn.
Holdingford, Minn.
William Lager | MPR News

Over time, Koehn began living out his dream and was named Minnesota Hog Farmer of the Year in 1988. But it was around that time that things began to turn south. Family health issues forced their insurance premiums to skyrocket. Add a combination of severe drought conditions and plummeting hog prices and Koehn’s profits suffered dramatically.

“So it’s ironic that after 20 years of award winning pork production, we actually had less money than when we started,” he said. “Reality was really starting to sink in.”

Koehn said the financial cloud created a dark period for his family. As a result, he put in more hours on the farm. But that just created more stress and made things worse.

And then one spring he said the emotional toll became too much to bear. Koehn’s teenage daughter opted to skip prom because she didn’t want the family to spend money they didn’t have on a new dress.

That same year, something else happened that shook Koehn to his core.

“Our youngest son, who was about six at the time, I overheard him talking to mom in the kitchen. He said, ‘Mom, why is dad always so grumpy and so tired?’ That was pretty much a jab in the heart for me,” Koehn said.

Koehn took all of this added stress as a sign that he needed to look elsewhere for income to feed his family. He took a part time job at a fleet supply store. But he still wasn’t ready to make the gut wrenching decision to give up farming altogether and pursue a more steady job.

His biggest fear was telling his 96-year-old grandfather that he would be the last generation of his family to be a farmer. When he worked up the courage to tell him, Koehn’s grandfather listened and relayed his own struggles during the Great Depression.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Mark, if your horse is dead get off the darn thing, it ain’t gonna get you to town.’”

With that sense of relief in hand, Koehn pursued a new career as a county agricultural appraiser. He said some of the skills he developed allowed him to be successful in his new role.

A man sits in front of a computer at a desk.
Mark Koehn inputs data from his home office on Tuesday. Koehn transitioned out of farming more than 20 years ago and now works as a county agricultural appraiser.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

When reviewing properties belonging to stressed farmers, he has seen many of them break down in tears, including three in one day.

“That drug up some painful memories of what we had gone through, and my heart was just bleeding for them,” Koehn said.

These encounters prompted Koehn to reach out to the local University of Minnesota Extension office. The educator at that office said Koehn would be good for speaking at outreach events aimed at helping farmers deal with stress.

He tells his story about making that tough decision to find a different job. His advice for others facing a bleak outlook: Once you break down that emotional barrier, the wheel toward a better future begins to turn.

“The despair is pretty overwhelming. And so, with programs like this, that we can talk about it and mentor other people, hopefully we can see these people through this.”

As this type of service is provided, organizers say they don’t want to discourage people from farming, and want to keep people in the profession as much as possible. They say family farms are still the lifeblood of many small towns struggling with population decreases. The program is there for those who have to do something else to generate revenue, or are simply ready to walk away.

For farmers like Mary Lou Graf, she still has hopes of keeping the dairy operation long enough to eventually hand it over to her adult children. But if that doesn't happen, she knows one thing, she has other options.