WILLMAR—The surprising optimism of farmers in spite of bleak revenues and the powerful punch agriculture has on the local economy were two key points revealed by an in-depth survey of Kandiyohi County ag producers.
A report on the survey, which was commissioned by the Ag and Renewable Energy Committee of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, was presented last week at two public forums.
The report will help the committee “develop a plan and a vision” to help farmers “retain the strength they have” for their own businesses and enhance their role as economic drivers in the community,” said Connie Schmoll, business development specialist and coordinator for the EDC’s Business, Retention and Expansion program.
The survey of 51 Kandiyohi County farmers—at least one from each township—took place this winter during one-on-one, on-the-farm interviews with volunteers.
The 45 questions in the survey asked farmers about the current and future size and operation of their farms, where they buy their ag supplies, the role off-farm income plays in their financial plan, what they see as threats or opportunities in the ag industry and what they need to succeed in the future.
Information gleaned from the survey is not just important to farmers, but to Kandiyohi County’s financial health.
Citing background data included in the report, EDC Executive Director Aaron Backman said about 52 percent of Kandiyohi County’s $1.8 billion in economic activity, or output, was ag-related.
When the recession hit, Backman said the strong ag industry helped “smooth out the highs and lows” and continues to help make Willmar a regional hub.
“Ag made the difference,” Backman said. “Ag is our foundation and bedrock.”
Yet half the farmers surveyed said city residents and rural, non-farm residents in the region “don’t care at all” whether farmers survive during difficult economic times and don’t understand agriculture and food safety.
Another 21 farmers said state environmental agencies do not care about their success and 11 said that producers with large operations do not care.
The report indicates the number of farmers in Kandiyohi County is decreasing and the size of each farm is increasing — with many hoping to get even bigger in the next five years.
The number of livestock producers in the county is also decreasing.
When a similar survey was completed 12 years ago, 43 percent of the county’s ag producers said all or part of their farm income came from livestock. In this survey, 11 percent earned income from livestock.
However, in 2005, the number of dairy cows was on the decline. Today, the number of dairy cows is almost double that of 12 years ago. That’s due, in part, because of the 8,500-head Meadow Star Dairy now operating near Pennock.
Farmers are also getting older. Most of those surveyed were 55-64 and only five were under the age of 34.
Transferring their farm to the next generation—preferably keeping the farm in the family—was a concern of many.
Fifty-five percent said they would encourage the next generation to return to the farm and 12 percent said they would not. Thirty-three percent were neutral on that question.
Farmers had high praise for services in their communities, such as schools, medical facilities and emergency services.
When it comes to shopping and keeping money in their home communities, 90 percent of the farmers surveyed said they buy their family goods in Kandiyohi County and 90 percent said they buy their farm supplies either in Kandiyohi County or a neighboring county.
The report cited a Ridgewater College Farm Business Management Program study that an average farm may contribute more than $800,000 to the local economy each year with farm and family spending.
Farmers identified a number of threats to their business, including high property taxes, lack of medical insurance and inadequate internet service and increasing regulations.
The report indicates farmers take action to be “good stewards” of the environment but do not like being told what to do with expensive, one-size-fits-all, government-mandated regulations.
Even though the current low commodity prices are causing a decline in farm income, the survey shows more farmers are optimistic about their future than those surveyed in 2005.
Half of those surveyed this time said they were optimistic or very optimistic and 39 percent were neutral. Eleven percent were pessimistic.
Part of that optimism may be linked to some farmers owing less money on their land. The survey showed 45 percent of respondents had land that is clear of debt. Twelve years ago, 22 percent did not owe money on their land.
Farmers acknowledged in the survey that they need to make wise choices, be good leaders and have courage to handle the unpredictable future of farming.
During a brief feedback session about the report last week, several people in the audience said education about agriculture—starting with elementary-aged students—could help bridge the gap of misunderstanding about the value of ag in the county and the need to support it.
Click the following link to read the report 2017 EDC Ag Producer BRE Report.
West Central Tribune by Carolyn Lange