By Mark Schultz
The people of Minnesota are beginning to consider what they would like the future of the state to look like in the context of the fall gubernatorial elections. Will they elect Minnesota’s first woman governor? Go “Back to the Future” with a former governor? Select a leader in agriculture policy? Or a county commissioner from the Twin Cities metropolitan area?
But the key question is not who—it is what. What is needed, and how will it be done? Land Stewardship Project members are in the thick of these discussions.
The work done on “A Vision for Rural Minnesota,” along with the Land Stewardship Project’s participation with 21 other people’s organizations in the statewide “Our Minnesota Future” effort, challenges us to think more seriously and more boldly about what is needed, and about how we the people can make that happen.
What is most clear to me is that LSP has an opportunity, and I believe an obligation, to lift up, discuss, and work for bold and effective solutions that are of the scale and scope necessary to address the serious challenges we face in Minnesota. Half-measures and short ends of the stick won’t cut it.
So, in order to stimulate more thought, action and dialogue, here are some of my thoughts. These are not a prescription, nor are they LSP’s adopted agenda, but they are being shared as an opportunity for us to raise the bar. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a chance to lift up our own eyes to see what is really needed and what bold solutions are possible.
Redirect Public Resources to Put People First
There is no doubt we are in the midst of an economic farm crisis. In agriculture, corporate control of the economy and of government benefits large-scale industrial agriculture and denies small- and mid-sized farmers access to profitable markets, affordable credit, affordable healthcare and land. Let’s be clear—lots of public resources go to support market development, tax abatement or other benefits for industrial agriculture and the largest corporate-backed operations. But most Minnesota farmers are locked out of those markets and there is very little public support for developing the profitable markets they need.
A recent example of this wholesale sell-out to corporate agriculture is the legislative testimony of Dr. Marin Bozic of the University of Minnesota this spring. He comfortably noted that there is no hope for 80 percent of Minnesota’s dairy farms, and then offered as an example of hope the multi-state conglomerate Riverview LLP with 34,500 cows in confinement in Minnesota. As LSP member Bill McMillin noted in a letter-to-the-editor, professor Bozic’s vision would mean we only need about a dozen more mega-operations to produce milk in Minnesota.
We don’t need continued public subsidies and support for these huge industrial operations, with their multi-million-gallon manure lagoons, absentee investors, low-wage jobs and an economic structure that sucks resources out of our communities. What Minnesota’s next governor needs to do is redirect resources away from corporate control and focus them on the success of everyday Minnesotans, like small- and mid-sized farms and businesses. They also need to focus on making healthy food available to all through local and regional systems. That’s the way to a healthy economy and society, and a healthy land.
For example, how about Minnesota’s new governor working with the people directly affected by this corporate control of agriculture to develop substantial markets for Minnesota’s moderate-sized farms that are producing milk, livestock, fruit and vegetables? The state could engage seriously with public institutions that provide food to people—schools, nursing homes, day care centers and hospitals—and provide them with the resources to purchase that food from farms in our region at a much larger scale than is being done currently.
This will mean divesting from excessive support for the corporate-controlled system and investing instead in the farmers, children and elderly people of the state. It’s called good government—putting the people first. The first step the new governor should take is to appoint a commissioner and assistant commissioners of agriculture who support this and for whom this is the priority.
Stop Subsidizing Factory Farms
Did you know that the State of Minnesota currently provides corporate-backed factory farms a tax abatement for huge multi-million gallon “lagoons” filled with liquid manure? That’s right, the public is basically subsidizing structures that are ticking time bombs of pollution, and which are likely to cost the public many millions of dollars for clean-up once they are abandoned by their investors. Minnesota should remove that public subsidy and establish a tax on the largest manure lagoons/pits. We could then take the revenue generated by such a tax and invest it in promoting and supporting livestock production systems—such as managed rotational grazing and deep-straw swine set-ups—that have proven to be a net positive for our communities and the land.
Support the Next Generation of Farmers
Many young people want to farm—people coming from existing Minnesota farms, from urban/suburban communities, and from other countries. They want to contribute to society and our economy by growing healthful food, caring for the land, and investing the wealth they generate in their own farms and in their communities in a way that supports schools, local businesses and community events.
When the wealth generated by agriculture runs through small- and mid-sized family farms, our communities prosper—we know this very clearly from our own history. Minnesota needs to enact policies that result in affordable access to land for beginning farmers, and address the historic structural racism that denies land to people of color. That means affordable loans, grants for start-up or early scale-up, market development by the state, support for food sovereignty efforts by native communities, and improved tax credits to landowners selling or renting to beginning farmers.
Establish a Minnesota State Bank
To build a healthy economy in which prosperity is widely shared across the state, people need credit. While community banks and credit unions are good partners, more is needed. Minnesota’s next governor could work to establish a “state bank,” such as the one that has successfully operated in North Dakota for 99 years. Why should the assets of the state—annual tax revenues, fees, etc.—be held by the big banks, which just use it to invest in the extension of corporate control in our economy? Rather, we should put those public assets in the state’s own bank, and invest them in people: education loans that are affordable, small business loans, farm loans that support small- and mid-sized family farms. That’s smart fiscal policy, and shifts resources away from corporate control.
Address the Healthcare Crisis
One issue that extends across all of our communities is the current healthcare crisis, and addressing it with real solutions should be a top priority for our next governor.
I recently read an interesting book called, Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right. Among other policies, the book examined healthcare policy in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. It laid out the significant fiscal savings and huge health benefits of publicly-run, publicly-funded universal health insurance systems. Among other things, these systems provide excellent coverage and care for rural people, something which many rural Minnesotans lack right now. Minnesotans get no help from the current Legislature, which wrongly pretends that cutting back on affordable coverage while literally handing out hundreds of millions of dollars to insurance corporations is the answer. The new governor should address the real pain and impoverishment that comes with a health system controlled for profit by major corporations.
Recognize & Reward Healthy Soil
As many LSP members have witnessed, there is a lot of excitement over the role building healthy soil in our fields and pastures can play in creating resilient, profitable, environmentally-beneficial farms. Building soil health isn’t just good for farmers—it also provides public goods for everyone in the form of cleaner water, nutrient-dense food, and sequestered greenhouse gases.
I’m extremely interested in what people think can be done in Minnesota through a governor’s leadership and positive state policy to assist thousands of farmers attempting to build soil health on their farms. What incentives can be provided, or obstacles cleared, or public research undertaken, to assist farmers building soil? How can the resources of our public institutions be directed to promote the regeneration of the soil?
Loud & Clear
This is not an exhaustive list, of course. It’s meant to stir discussion, to cause us to lift our sights as to what is needed and what is possible. I encourage LSP’s members and supporters to think about what changes you would like to see in your communities and on the landscape, and what bold steps the next governor can take to bring such changes about. Let us know what you think—attend an LSP meeting, give me a call, or contact one of our organizers. Let others know, too—through your social media, or a letter-to-the-editor. Participate in a public hearing or candidates’ forum. The bottom line: one way or the other, make your bold voice heard.
Mark Schultz is the executive director of the Land Stewardship Project.