I’m honored to enter a new role this legislative session as chair of the House agriculture committee.
Agriculture represents a small portion of the state budget, but the success of the industry is vitally important to our entire economy. Lawmakers have a vital role to play in ensuring farmers can continue their operations from generation to generation, giving farmers in new and emerging forms the tools they need to succeed, and encouraging new farmers, of all backgrounds, to enter the profession.
Growing up on a dairy farm in Koochiching County, Minn., I understand the hard work and perseverance required to make it in the industry. Many farmers are struggling to maintain their operations, and while there are good years and bad years, Minnesota agriculture has been a roller coaster recently. It’s been particularly tragic to see hundreds of dairy farms shut down just over the past few years.
First and foremost — just like every other sector — we need to help farmers get through the COVID-19 pandemic. When the virus hit meatpacking plants, meat and poultry farmers suddenly lost an avenue for their products to go to market. We need to expand processing opportunities to prevent potential bottlenecks in the future. We must also be proactive in helping farms facing bankruptcy, including through the farmer-lender mediation program. Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding has been helpful, and we’ll need to continue doing everything we can to keep operations above water. This is all on top of the struggles farmers continue to face as a result of global economic turmoil and its impacts on exports.
We’re hopefully entering our final chapter of the pandemic, and it’s time to look to the future. Organic farming continues to grow in Minnesota, and I’m interested in exploring opportunities to help the industry expand more quickly. For the economic engine to keep humming, we need to ensure agriculture can be sustainable.
I’d also like to explore how we can encourage more direct-to-consumer sales. In Carlton County, cottage food has developed as a new industry and I’d like to see it grow statewide. During COVID-19, many farmers markets took their operations online, and I think there’s opportunity for this model to succeed post-pandemic. Many lawmakers are also looking toward increased hemp production. I’d like to see barriers removed so this industry can grow.
The agriculture committee is one of the most bipartisan in the whole Legislature, and everyone has good working relationships with stakeholders. When farmers have the opportunity to succeed, our rural communities are able to be strong, resilient and vibrant.
It goes much beyond that though. Every single Minnesotan — no matter if they live in an urban area, the suburbs or outstate — counts on healthy, fresh and affordable food. I’m hopeful we can all work together to strengthen the agriculture industry and ensure all Minnesotans can have food on their tables, grown and processed right here in Minnesota.
Rep. Mike Sundin, a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party from Esko, chairs the House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee. He represents residents of Carlton, Pine and St. Louis counties in the Minnesota House. Contact him at 651-296-4308 or firstname.lastname@example.org.