By Rep. Joe McDonald
I could not help but think of my father, the late K.J., as the House recently approved a bill providing an influx of funding to support mental health resources for farmers.
Dad chaired the House Agriculture Committee back in the 1985-86 biennium, a tumultuous economic time for the ag industry. He was a strong advocate for farmers and I share his appreciation for small, family farms being the backbone of our economy in Minnesota. Our district was built on family farms and remains highly rural.
One problem farmers face today – as they did during Dad’s time as ag. chair – is that a tough business climate is taking its toll on them and their families as they try to run a business. Margins are extremely tight and reports indicate Minnesota has lost roughly half of its dairy farms in the last 15 years alone.
Farmers in District 29A are working their fingers to the bone, yet it can be a struggle for some to barely break even – and others have it even worse. As the stresses mount, mental-health issues also present challenges and an increased suicide rate of late is deeply saddening.
The bill we approved in the House (H.F. 232) provides an additional $100,000 for rural mental health initiatives through the June 30 end of the current biennium. This is stop-gap funding in response to recent suicide attempts, which have brought urgency to the issue and necessitated further funding in the current fiscal year.
While the dollar amount in the bill may seem relatively slight – and we certainly need to do more – the purpose is to do more to help farmers through the end of June, at which point a new biennial budget is scheduled to be in place with additional resources. While I am pleased mental health counseling resources for farmers and rural business operators is a priority for both major House caucuses this year, the hope is we also can pass legislation to alleviate factors that are causing strain, catching them upstream before they fester into sources of mental-health impacts.
For example, legislation (H.F. 1021) has been offered in the House to establish a dairy producer conservation incentive program. Under the proposal, dairy producers with 1,000 cows or less are eligible for grants for adopting up to 10 specific conservation practices. Also, the recently enacted federal farm bill includes improved dairy margin coverage to provide a better safety net for farms with 230 or fewer cows.
Another bill in the House (H.F. 2093) expands the Rural Finance Authority’s disaster recovery loan eligibility to aid dairy farmers whose barns collapsed under the heavy snow this winter.
These are just some things we are doing to help our farmers and I welcome ideas from the people of District 29A. Farming always has been and always will be a challenging way to make a living. That’s part of what makes it so admirable and, frankly, what draws such good, strong people to it. We just need to make sure it’s a way of life current generations can survive and future generations are interested in pursuing.