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Commentary - Diversity growing on farms in Minnesota

In my lifetime, Minnesota's population has doubled. It has also become more varied, although these patterns have not always been fully apparent in some parts of rural Minnesota or in our farm sector.

The latest agricultural census showed that from 2002 to 2007, the number of Minnesota farmers claiming Native American heritage nearly doubled (to 203), while the number of farmers claiming Asian heritage more than tripled from 44 to 148. Those totals are still tiny compared to the number of farms in the state, but I'm willing to bet those figures will jump again when the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts its 2012 census.

At the same time we are seeing more demographic diversity, we are also seeing more diversity of farm business models. While the vast majority of Minnesota's agricultural production and economic impact still comes from what we might call "traditional" crop and livestock farms, there is a steadily growing number of farms catering to consumers' increasing interest for local food, and for greater interaction with those who provide their food.

Sometimes this takes the form of agro-tourism such as winery tours or corn mazes. Other times it is community-supported agriculture or farmers markets. In each case, the common thread is consumers wanting to get beyond the grocery store to get to know their farmers. You can see this trend when you look at the number of farms participating in our Minnesota Grown program. When the program started in 1989, it had 178 members. Ten years later, it had 559. By 2009, Minnesota Grown had 1,000 and today we have nearly 1,200 members.

It's good for us to keep these trends in mind when we talk about Minnesota agriculture. We need to make sure we don't overlook these growing parts of our farm and food sector when we consider what (and who) constitutes Minnesota agriculture, or what the needs are in the future. At the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), we are working hard to help all farmers find their niche and contribute to our economy.

One way we are helping is by making it a little easier to get started. Through the state's Rural Finance Authority and its Basic Farm Loan Program, we work with local banks and other lenders to make credit available on terms more favorable to the young farmer starting out.

Another way MDA is helping is through our work with the Minnesota Farmers Market Association. This work includes regional workshops held annually to promote the association, farmers and local foods. Six workshops will be held this coming November.

There is no doubt the foundation of Minnesota's agricultural economy remains our traditional crop and livestock farms. They generate tremendous value for our economy and our quality of life. At the same time, I am excited about the contributions these new kinds of Minnesota farms - and farmers - are making to our state. And I am determined to see that MDA helps all types of farms succeed.