After Minnesota Department of Agriculture commissioner Thom Petersen was sworn into office in January 2019, he was a man on a mission, making in-person contact with all sectors of the state’s agriculture.
He put a lot of miles on vehicles as he traveled from Hallock to Houston, from Luverne to Duluth, and points in between.
COVID-19 may have let the air out of those tires, but Petersen appears undeterred. He now meets virtually and makes more phone calls as he reaches out to people on farms, in business offices and in processing facilities. Most MDA employees have been working from home since the pandemic hit in mid-March. Roughly 30 to 55 MDA employees who work in the laboratory or specific offices have still been driving to work.
During a recent conversation, Petersen provided an update on what he is hearing and seeing across the state.
The emotional and financial stress is strong across all sectors. After dealing with five rough financial years, it looked like farmers would get a break in 2020. Then the pandemic hit.
Pork and turkey farmers are facing huge stress emotional and financially as they make difficult decisions surrounding animal euthanasia, Petersen said. Corn and soybean farmers have been caught in trade wars, plus corn farmers are dealing with lower ethanol demand and production as fewer people drive these days. And dairy farmers are receiving low milk prices again.
“That’s why the Legislature extended the length of mediation available for farmers in the Farmer-Lender Mediation Program from 90 to 150 days,” he said. “This is a critical program for farmers, especially now with COVID-19. Having 60 more days to renegotiate or restructure will be a huge help in many cases.”
WORK TOGETHER: Minnesota agriculture commissioner Thom Petersen and most MDA employees have been working virtually to maintain connections with farmers and the greater ag community.
Farmers that are in debt can renegotiate, restructure or resolve farm debt through mandatory mediation. Mandatory mediation means that creditors cannot start debt collection proceedings against agricultural property until an offer of mediation has been extended and, if the farmer so chooses, completed.
Around 800 farms are now in mediation, Petersen said.
Lawmakers this session also extended the mediation program deadline to Dec. 1, 2020.
More information on mediation and assistance for farmers is available through the MDA’s Farm Advocate Program.
Everyone is learning from each other. Packing plants either shuttered or reduced capacity in reaction to COVID-19 infection levels among workers.
“The good news is that they are up and running, but it is a little slow,” Petersen said, referring to temporarily shuttered plants’ ability to resume.
Memorial weekend provided time for them to do deep cleaning and moving equipment to allow for improved environments for employees.
“They are all learning from each other,” he added, as plants reconfigure employee locker rooms and cafeterias to allow for more individual space.
Whole communities are impacted. While Minnesotans hear reports of specific packing plants being impacted by the pandemic, Petersen said we need to keep in mind that the whole community is affected by COVID-19 outbreaks.
“It can overwhelm a rural community,” he said. “If you have an outbreak, do you have the medical staff to handle it?”
He acknowledged efforts by the Hormel plant in Austin, Minn., as the company took action earlier and faster when the pandemic was announced.
“We look at Hormel as to what worked there — early temperature checks, strict questioning of employees, being told if you are sick do not come in to work,” he said.
MDA continues to add to the list of resources for farmers and processors. MDA has multiple online links on its website for farmers. Those include:
One segment that MDA has heard about are small local meat lockers.
“Before COVID, they were backed up, which is a good thing, as people are buying locally,” Petersen said.
But now with COVID, some small meat processors are doing four to five times the businesses, and their facilities and staffs are tapped. Many, if not all, are booked into early 2021.
In response, MDA instituted an emergency grant program called the AGRI Rapid Response Mini-Grant for Livestock Processing. The program provides funding to increase slaughter, processing and storage capacity for livestock products until existing markets return or new markets are developed.
Eligible meat processors must be either an existing USDA inspected slaughter or processing plant, a Minnesota Equal-To slaughter or processing plant, or a licensed custom exempt slaughter plant.
Learn more about the mini-grant program online.
‘Look for the positives’
As tough as it is, Petersen continues to look for bright spots. That’s part of his job description.
“Our saving grace is that we had good weather for our planting season,” he said.
Looking ahead, Petersen is anticipating where Minnesota ag products could go. He plans to connect with trading partners in Canada, Mexico, Columbia, Taiwan, Kazakhstan and the U.K. to discuss market possibilities.
“It’s hard now, but we need to look for the positives and build on them,” he said, adding, “Minnesota farmers are super resilient.”