By Rep. Jeanne Poppe
As we finish the first month of Minnesota’s legislative session, the issues we will tackle over the next few months begin to fully form. As chair of the House Agriculture and Food Finance and Policy Division, it is certain a number of funding proposals and policy initiatives related to improving the well-being of farmers and producers will be heard.
One issue of which I consider a high priority is the increase of funding and resources for our farmers suffering through tough economic times.
Serving and supporting constituents facing tough times is not a partisan issue, and it takes bipartisan solutions when it comes to ensuring that our rural farmers and neighbors are properly supported economically and emotionally. A number of bills (HF 84, HF 158, HF 232), have been introduced to provide additional money for rural mental health counseling, Farmer Legal Action Group and the Farm Advocates Program. Many of these programs were originally funded in the mid-1980s during the farm crisis.
In a recent committee hearing, we had somber and emotional testimony from a northern Minnesota soybean farmer about her personal experience losing her husband to suicide. The stress our farmers are feeling, added to the struggles they currently have with weather, trade challenges and the high cost of health insurance, has heightened the need to provide additional resources.
Suicide rates in 2018 for male farmers are almost 50% higher than they were during the 1980s. The suicide rate among male farmers peaked at 58 suicides per 100,000 farmers in 1982, compared to recent data showing that suicide rates for workers in the farming industry have risen to a staggering 90.5 per 100,000.
It is my hope we will appropriate additional funds in 2019 and make plans to continue this support into the next 2020-2021 budget cycle.
The Farm Advocates Program has been supported by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture since 1984 and is free of charge to those who need their services. Farm Advocates provide one-on-one assistance for Minnesota farmers who face crisis caused by either a natural disaster or financial problems. They understand the needs of agricultural families and communities.
With staff from all over the state, Farm Advocates are trained and experienced in agricultural lending practices, mediation, lender negotiation, farm programs, crisis counseling, disaster programs, and to recognize the need for legal or social services and make referrals as necessary.
Farmer Legal Action Group (FLAG) is a nonprofit law center dedicated to providing legal services and support to family farmers and their communities. Born as a response to the farm credit crisis of the 1980s, FLAG has continued to gain expertise through its nationwide work with family farmers, particularly those struggling with agricultural credit and civil rights.
As we seek to increase and improve the resources available for our farmers, farm families facing challenges are encouraged to use services that are readily available. One resource is the Minnesota Farm & Rural Helpline 1-833-600-2670 (toll-free). This dedicated phone line is answered by trained counselors 24/7. This confidential helpline is for anyone experiencing symptoms of stress/distress — including spouses or neighbors who are worried about someone but don’t know how to approach them.
Poppe is a state representative and chairwoman of the Minnesota House Agriculture and Food Finance and Policy Division.