November 14, 2023
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.
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