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Helping emerging farmersHelping emerging farmers

First director of Emerging Farmers Office aims to help clientele maneuver through the processes.

Kevin Schulz

November 14, 2023

4 Min Read
Lillian Otieno head and shoulders shot
LEADING THE WAY: As the first director of the Emerging Farmers Office, Lillian Otieno is ready to help dreams come true for people wishing to become farmers in Minnesota.Courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture

Anyone wishing to farm deserves a chance, and Lillian Otieno hopes to help those fulfill their dreams.

As the first director of the Emerging Farmers Office in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Otieno sees the canvas as a clean slate, with her mission to ensure that all Minnesotans wishing to break into farming have a chance. She says a lot of that chance starts with focus.

“We need to look at some of those focus areas that are critical in addressing the needs of emerging farmers,” she says, “and I will tell you that land access is one of those focus areas: availability of land for folks to farm — and there are many layers to it.”

Whether land is too expensive, or land is limited — such as in a metro area — “and in rural areas, sometimes it’s in terms of the diversity of folks who want to access those lands and some of the social issues that they may encounter,” Otieno says.

This Emerging Farmers Office, within the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S., was born out of an Emerging Farmers Working Group that was set in motion by the Minnesota Legislature.

Under the guidance of Otieno’s office, Emerging Farmers are defined as women, veterans, persons with disabilities, American Indian/Alaskan Native, members of communities of color, young, LGBTQIA+ or urban farmers.

Otieno, who most recently served as coordinator for the Emerging Farmers program at the MDA since 2021, has been an MDA employee since 2017.

Prior to coming to MDA, Otieno made a career in the beverage industry with Coca-Cola in her native Africa before working for Coca-Cola in Eagan, Minn. She also worked in food safety at the manufacturing level with LSG Sky Chefs, before also working in food safety with SuperValu in the five-state region where she developed a relationship with the MDA.

Maneuvering in the system

In addition to solving the land availability issue, Otieno aims to help emerging farmers navigate through the resources available and ensure that they follow proper processes.

“A lot of emerging farmers may not necessarily be able to navigate some of the resources or processes that we have,” she says. “So, looking at how do we make sure that we have technical assistance — not just for them to be successful in their businesses to expand, but also to navigate the resources that are available both federal and state and others and also looking internally around our grant systems.”

Another area of focus, or concern, for emerging farmers may be a language barrier, as some of the clientele of this office may have English as a second or learned language.

“We’re very fortunate that the Legislature provided us funding for translation and interpretation, and we internally have worked on that and made sure that when we have input sessions or listening sessions — especially inviting our farmers. And this is not just emerging farmers but the breadth of our constituents that the Department of Agriculture provide services; for that we are looking into language accessibility, whether that is translation or interpretation.”

The last area of focus that Otieno sees for her office, but perhaps the most important, is pinpointing who these emerging farmers are and where they are. “We need to determine who they are to identify what their struggles are,” she says. “We do have anecdotal data, but we don’t really have robust data. This is still a new area.”

To help in this area, the MDA recently announced grant recipients for organizations that provide business and technical support to farmers from historically underserved communities.

Through the Emerging Farmer Technical Assistance Grant Program, eight organizations have received a total of $554,920 in one-time grants. Grant funds can be used to provide technical and culturally appropriate services to emerging farmers, and to pay up to 65% of emerging farmers’ premium expenses under the USDA Micro Farm Crop Insurance Program. Forty percent of this funding will go directly to farmers supported by these organizations in the form of scholarships, stipends, mileage reimbursements and crop insurance premium payments.

Organizations receiving grants are in Staples, Duluth, Willow River, Minnetonka, Cambridge, Minneapolis, Nerstrand and Hammond.

More information about the Emerging Farmers Office can be found online.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

[email protected]

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